6. THE BIBLE’S COHERENCE
“The Bible is a collection of more than 60 books written by various people from many different places over a long period of time. And still they all teach the same message. Such a work would be impossible if it had not been guided by God!”
I understand it’s easy to feel like that if you read the Bible in a biased way, guided by some denomination’s interpretation. But as I started to read the Bible in a more neutral way, it became clear its books were composed by several different writers who had extremely different views, different versions of stories and different messages. There is no such thing as one cohesive message.
Of course there are some points in common in most of the books, like the idea of Israel as the chosen people and of Yahwe as their god. That’s not a surprise since the writers were mostly of Hebrew ethnicity who lived in the Palestine and surrounding regions. They had a similar cultural background. Now if the Bible had been composed by ancient writers from far-away cultures like East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas, all having received the same revelation from God and sharing the same message, now that would be a real strong evidence for its godly origin. Our Bible, though, was produced in cultures very similar to each other. Yet, there is a huge number of diverging ideas within it.
I’ve already mentioned the discrepancies between the gospel accounts, like the genealogies of Jesus and the descriptions of Judas’ death. There are also many contradictory accounts in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible), as it was apparently formed as a compilation of traditional stories. Examples are the two accounts of the genesis creation (Chapter 1 tells one story; from Genesis 2:4 it’s another story), several accounts of the flood mixed up together, different accounts of the calling of Abraham and the laws received by Moses.
Not only events, but many ideas preached in the Bible are also contradictory. The second commandment in Exodus 20 (2-4) says God punishes the sons for the sin of the father, Ezekiel 18 says God doesn’t. In Matthew 5, Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law, in Ephesians 2, Paul says Jesus abolished the law. In Romans 3 and 4, Paul says faith alone is enough for salvation, in James 2 it says nobody is saved by faith alone. The Acts of the Apostles (chapter 2) describes the speaking in tongues as foreign human languages, but Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, says it is the language of angels. In Mark 10:17,18 Jesus claims he isn’t the same with God, while the author of John’s Gospel, in chapter 1, describes Jesus as being the same with God. Paul, in 1 Timothy 6:16, says nobody ever saw the face of God, but the Pentateuch has Abraham, Jacob and Moses meet God face to face (Genesis 18; Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:11). Many passages, like 1 Corinthians 8:4, claim there is only one God, but Genesis 6 and Psalm 82 strongly suggest otherwise. Etcetera, etcetera.
The biggest contradiction I personally came across during my Bible study sessions was about love for one’s enemies.
Does God preach us to forgive our enemies? I always thought he did, since you can easily find Jesus and Paul teaching that along the New Testament. The first problem came when we were studying Kings and we learned about the adventures of Elijah and Elisha, two of the greatest prophets of God. 2 Kings 2 says Elisha once met a group of little kids who were mocking him because he was bald. He then got mad and cursed the kids. I would expect God to rebuke him or something, since Jesus teaches love and forgiveness instead of vengeance. But God didn’t only not punish him, he rather granted his desire by sending bears from the woods to devour the children. And Elisha continued being portrayed as a holy prophet of God, as if he had done a wonderful deed. The same goes for Elijah when he called fire from the sky to burn more than one hundred innocent soldiers alive. Did God punish him for that? No, He took him to glory in heaven in a carriage pulled by horses of fire. I wonder if Jesus would do the same in their places.
I just imagine that if God really intended to give us a holy book, he would make it perfectly coherent, so we could know it was written by him. The Bible, with all its contradictions, interpolations and historical problems, seems like one of the weakest candidates for such a book.
WHAT TO DO OF THE BIBLE?
In front of so many imperfections in the Bible, I could not but regard the supposition of divine inspiration as a very unlikely one. But unlike many, I don’t think this is a reason to have a negative view of the Bible as a whole. The Bible is a compilation of many books, with a big diversity of ideas in it. Some of them are no doubt despicable, but I can’t deny there are others that have given me very good insights. If I want to be truly rational about it, I think I should recognize that the Bible does have many good lessons for life. Of course many messages are delivered embedded in a language that reflects the political, social and religious views of the time, but many of them are quite universal and applicable to us nowadays.
Especially books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament and many of the moral teachings spread throughout the New Testament can offer some very profound and wise reflections about life, love, relationships and suffering. Other parts like the Later Prophets and the Deuteronomistic literature also contain a few useful teachings, quite revolutionary for the time when they were written.
Some, like the British preacher Charles Spurgeon used to argue, are reluctant to the idea of reading the Bible in a critical way because we, as imperfect human beings, cannot know exactly what is true and what is not in the book. Indeed, the historical and spiritual facts mentioned in the Bible are basically impossible to verify completely. But I don’t think it’s necessary to verify them anyways. I don’t see any reason at all to try to unravel every corner of the Bible. To me, it doesn’t matter if a story is real or just fictitious, what matters is the message it conveys. The Bible is a much more precious work if read critically, with the focus on understanding its messages, reflecting on them and practicing what one finds helpful.
Think you have explanations for those contradictions I presented? Check my next post~~