It’s curious to think that despite so many contradictions and errors in the Bible, so many Christian believers, including those who join Bible studies and seminars, seldom realize such things. The truth is that all religious groups that preach biblical inerrancy use techniques to harmonize the contradictions, to make them look non-contradictory (not only contradictions within the Bible but also in relation to that church’s doctrine). I call these techniques “harmonization mechanisms”.
It makes churches look bad, as if they were trying to manipulate the Bible, but these mechanisms are designed many times unconsciously, as consequence of the way Christians read the the scriptures. What I could observe through my experience is that conservative Christians approach the Bible with a kind of upside-down analytical method. When analyzing an object in a rational way, one would first observe its patterns, and based on that would draw conclusions. What I see Christians doing is to come with an already presupposed conclusion (biblical inerrancy) and, based on that, start to analyze the Bible. If you do that, you will naturally see yourself reinterpreting and distorting many parts of the Bible, in order to preserve your conclusion. This shows how people, even with good intentions and no original desire of manipulating the text, end up doing so automatically because of their belief.
During my time of Bible study I could see many kinds of harmonization. I classified them here into four groups: hypothesis, textual meaning, alternative translation and cultural explanation.
As the name suggests, it consists in the formulation of a hypothesis. Sometimes believers come to the pastor and say things like: “so I was reading the Bible and I saw this part that says this.. but I remember another day we studied that other part, that says the opposite…”. And the pastor replies like: “oh, it’s because we have to suppose that this and this happened..”. For example, with the case of Judas’ death (by hanging vs. by falling), many hypothesize that he actually hung himself and then the rope broke and his corpse fell. It’s similar with the birth narratives, as people just suppose both narratives are part of the same story and suppose the author in Matthew referred to the manger as house.
Of course such hypothesis are possible, the question is whether they are likely. In the case of Judas’ death, for example, it wouldn’t make sense that both writers knew the true story but provided to their readers only part of it and omitted the other. Why would the author of Acts only say Judas fell headlong, if he knew that he hung himself and what fell was his corpse? Why would he omit such an important part? It makes more sense to imagine he was making up a different version of Judas’ death, perhaps because he didn’t know how it actually happened. This makes even more sense if you take into account that the book of Acts emphasizes the actions of the Holy Ghost, as it is described teleporting Phillip, making the disciples speak in tongues and apparently killing a couple who lied (Ananias and his wife). It’d be more coherent with the author’s point of view to have Judas die by falling, as if the Holy Ghost had actually pushed him to death.
Believers generally think that if they can find one explanation for the contradiction, even if absurd, then the contradiction is nullified and they can continue believing the Bible as inerrant. However, you will always find an explanation for any kind of contradiction if you want. All you’ve got to do is be creative. Consider this example:
Pablo Escobar, a famous Colombian drug lord, died a mysterious death. His son wrote a book saying Escobar died by killing himself so he wouldn’t be captured alive. The report from the police, however, says he was shot dead by a cop during the chase. Suppose I wanted to create a religion about Escobar (and there are actually people who do worship him as a saint), and in order to assemble a holy scripture I gathered both his son’s and the police’s reports of his death, as inspired text. The accounts are contradictory. But I could solve the contradiction by hypothesizing Escobar shot himself at exactly the same time the bullet from the cop stroke his head. An absurd supposition indeed, but who cares? It harmonizes the contradiction. And I’m sure I’d have many of my followers convinced.
Similarly, the Gospel of Mark (10:17,18) has Jesus claim he is not God while the Gospel of John portrays him as God. How do you solve this? Well, just say Jesus is God and Jesus is not God at the same time. An absurd supposition? Yes, but who cares? It works. This supposition was called “Trinity” and was proclaimed an orthodox dogma by the Church in the 4th century.
2. TEXTUAL MEANING
Sometimes a new meaning is attributed to a word or expression, regardless of the context.
One example is the passage where Elisha curses the children for mocking him.
2 Kings 2:23, 24: “…and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them”.
The text suggests the children shouted “go up” because he was “going up by the way”. However, in order to make Elisha’s reaction more reasonable and less contradictory with other teachings, churches interpret “go up” as meaning “go up to heaven”, an allusion to Elijah’s ascension to heaven, concluding the children were mocking God and hence deserved to be cursed. Erm….
Another example is Acts 2:17, that reads:
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”.
Now some reformed churches, that are usually skeptical about visions and prophecies, claim “prophesy” here should be understood as preaching the Bible, and “see visions” should be understood as having ambitions of evangelism. Of course these meanings are totally absent in the context. Rather, it seems like the author of Acts did in fact believe in prophecies and visions, as many people at the time did.
3. ALTERNATIVE TRANSLATION
The assertion that the text should be translated in a different way.
Genesis 2:19 is a good example.
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them”.
Because this verse contradicts Genesis 1 (that tells God created animals first, and only the next day he created men) many say the right translation should be: “And out of the ground the Lord God HAD formed every beast…”
Another example is Corinthians 13:1.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity,…”.
Here Paul refers to the speaking in tongues as the language of angels. Churches that don’t believe it to be an angelical language prefer to translate it as: “Even if I could speak with the tongues of men and of angels”, giving the idea that Paul is not referring to the speaking in tongues, but making a hyperbole, a joke.
4. CULTURAL EXPLANATION
Giving a cultural explanation in order to change the meaning.
“…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Since this verse preaches it’s almost impossible for rich people to be saved, I have heard some Bible teachers, who oppose this idea, arguing the “eye of a needle”, in the culture of the time, referred to a gate in Jerusalem. There is no widely accepted evidence that this gate was real, though.
There are also attempts to use culture to explain the different genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. The idea is that, since the culture of the time was patriarchal, Luke chose not to name women in the genealogy and instead their husbands, so even though he writes Joseph, he means Mary, and traces Jesus’ line through his mother’s side. But Luke doesn’t give any explicit indication that he traces the genealogy through Mary (which would obviously confuse his readers) and none of the early Christian writers understood it as such.
Ok, so people develop lots of mechanisms to try to make the Bible seem divine and perfect. This makes me go back to that old question: Why is it so hard to let go?