By Spencer D Gear
Is the Bible a book that contains errors of history, contradictions of various sorts, and can still be described as the authoritative word of God?
There are heretical groups like the Jesus Seminar that want us to believe that ‘Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him’ (Funk et al 1998:5).
What about John Dominic Crossan’s assessment? (He’s also a fellow of the Jesus Seminar)
What happened after the death and burial of Jesus is told in the last chapters of the four New Testament gospels. On Easter Sunday morning his tomb was found empty, and by Easter Sunday evening Jesus himself had appeared to his closest followers and all was well once again. Friday was hard, Saturday was long, but by Sunday all was resolved. Is this fact or fiction, history or mythology? Do fiction and mythology crowd closely around the end of the story just as they did around its beginning? And if there is fiction or mythology, on what is it based? I have already argued, for instance, that Jesus’ burial by his friends was totally fictional and unhistorical. He was buried, if buried at all, by his enemies, and the necessarily shallow grave would have been easy prey for scavenging animals. We can still glimpse what happened before, behind, and despite those fictional overlays precisely by imagining what they were created to hide. What happened on Easter Sunday? Is that the story of one day? Or of several years? Is that the story of all Christians gathered together as a single group in Jerusalem? Or is that the story of but one group among several, maybe of one group who claimed to be the whole?…
The Easter story at the end is, like the Nativity story at the beginning, so engraved on our imagination as factual history rather than fictional mythology. (Crossan 1994:160-161).
If that is your view of the Bible, what is your view of Christ’s death on the cross and his atonement for sins? Crossan takes offense at the substitutionary atonement:
What are his statements about the nature of Christ’s atonement? His view is that blood sacrifice should not include suffering and substitution and should not include ‘substitutionary suffering’. He stated that ‘worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution….That theology would be a crime against divinity’. While it is correct to call Jesus’ death a sacrifice, but ‘substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins’ (Crossan 2007:140).
Crossan’s presuppositions about the atonement
What are the presuppositions that underlie this theology that opposes substitutionary atonement?
On Christian Forums I was discussing the nature of Scripture when I stated that in about 50 years as an evangelical Christian, I’ve come across a few apparent contradictions, but with some further study all of them have been resolved to my satisfaction.
My starting point is that the God of Scriptures tells the truth and I’ve provided this biblical evidence for this in a previous post on this thread. Since God is the God of truth, we will not tell me a lie or present a real contradiction to me. It may be an apparent contradiction in Scripture from my human perspective, but I’ve been able to resolve/harmonise them to my satisfaction.
Ebia’s response was:
Because its (sic) a pointless exercise, like worrying about whether the Maths textbook has got their height of the tower of Pisa correct. No – correct that – a worse than pointless exercise. “resolving” the discrepancies ends up devaluing the actual messages of the texts in order to hang on to some inappropriate notion of truth that reflects a particular cultural hang-up.
Sure, one can convince oneself that anything is not a contradiction if one is prepared to go far enough to do it. The question is whether that’s a good idea.
There was a back and forth between us in which there were differences between us of the meaning of biblical authority.
Ebia responded to another of my posts:
‘Because the discrepancies [in Scripture] tend to exist for a reason; they result from the differences in what different authors are trying to say. A best resolving them risks flattening out the accounts and drowning out those messages, at worst it produces a farce like some of the attempts to harmonize the cock-crow/denial accounts or the resurrection morning accounts. And either way it’s a distraction. In no case does it – can it – do anything actually useful. Assuming that the gospels are “God’s word (TM)”, it’s the gospels as written that are that, not some harmonization of them’.
In another she asked:
What do I take from the letter to Timothy? That scripture is a unique gift from God, useful and reliable for teaching,… And in some sense a living thing. That it has authority in the sense Tom Wright talks about.
I was asking for her understanding of the meaning of theopneustos (‘inspiration’ or ‘breathed out by God’) in 2 Tim. 3:16.
How would you respond to her continuing emphases?
- ‘You’re going around in circles because you are trying to force an answer in terms of a framework that is not one that I or Tom [N T Wright] accept.
I don’t accept that inconsistency in factual detail is an error in texts that aren’t trying to communicate that level of factual detail (see my Maths textbook analogy) and therefore to keep framing the question on those terms is, to me, to misformed (sic) the question’.
- ‘It takes two to tango. But the reason we are both going around in circles is that the way you keep framing the question fits your worldview assumptions but not mine, instead of being prepared to consider what I actually have to say.
In particular I don’t share your view that a discrepancy in a factual detail – lets say the name of Joseph’s great-grandfather in the male line – constitutes an error in a meaningful sense.
Tom Wright leaves out what I would want to leave out because it’s the wrong question to be asking.
Of course we aren’t going to agree. Is the only point of a conversation to make people agree with you?’
- ‘You claim it’s a “conflict with the nature of God”. I don’t agree because I don’t see a discrepancy in factual detail to be an “error” if the concern of the text is not accuracy in that detail but something entirely different.
Your question is “wrong” because it has an underlying assumption about tangential factual details that I don’t share.
It’s a bit like keeping asking “have you stopped beating your wife yet; yes or no?”’
- ‘Discrepancies [in Scripture] tend to exist for a reason; they result from the differences in what different authors are trying to say’.
Presuppositions imposed on biblical text
I find it impossible to have a rational discussion with this person and her views on the nature of the origin of the Bible because her presuppositions are based on an imposition on the biblical text. The view of Scripture is not that expounded from the Scriptures themselves. This is my assessment:
(1) If we try to resolve the discrepancies in the text, it ends up devaluing the actual messages of the texts is her statement. Her view is that the message of the Bible can contain discrepancies (i.e. errors), but that doesn’t affect the message. My presupposition is that the God of truth does not tell lies and the original documents of the Bible would not have been given by God to contain errors if he is the God of truth and justice as I’ve attempted to show in this article.
(2) Her view is that an inconsistency in factual detail is not an error in texts. That is a loose view of the authority of Scripture that allows or glosses over errors in factual details in the Bible. Therefore, how do we decide which are the factual errors and which are not? Is the ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) creation of the universe and all that is in it, according to the Genesis record, a factual inconsistency when compared with the theory of evolution? Is the virgin birth of Christ and inconsistency or factually true? I find it better to study the Bible inductively – from the biblical texts. Listen to what the biblical text states. There may be statements that I don’t yet understand with my limited knowledge and there may be apparent inconsistencies, but to date I have not found an alleged discrepancy for which there has not been an adequate explanation provided with study.
(3) According to this poster, the discrepancies are there for a reason and are because different authors are trying to say different things. But, what about the God of truth and what he is overseeing? If he is the God of truth, shouldn’t that guarantee the truth of what he superintends, no matter which author is writing?
(4) I ask you: Is ebia on the correct path when she compares my view of wanting to know if the Bible is an infallible document or not, with ‘like keeping asking “have you stopped beating your wife yet; yes or no?”’ Is the requirement to know the origin of the Bible, whether it is infallible or not, in any way like asking, ‘have you stopped beating your wife yet; yes or no?’ I object strongly to such an interpretation of my views. I find ebia to be promoting a weak view of the Scripture and she is trying to justify her view.
I hope you see that this interchange is important because it helps to uncover the presupposition we both have with regard to the Scripture. Ebia believes that the Bible can make errors in tangential factual details and still be regarded as Scripture. My view is that the God of truth and righteousness will always tell the truth and never lie. What he tells us in Scripture is inerrant in the original manuscripts.
See the articles that follow that I have written, except for the first one:
‘Apparent contradictions and inerrancy’ by my son, Paul Gear;
I have a copy of the American edition – and have read all of it – of N T Wright’s The Last Word (HarperSanFrancisco 2005). He begins his preface to the American edition with,
Writing a book about the Bible is like building a sandcastle in front of the Matterhorn (p. ix).
He states that the central claim of this book is
that the phrase “authority of Scripture” can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture” (p. 23, emphasis in original).
Later, under the heading, ‘Inspiration and “the Word of YHWH”‘, he stated
“Inspiration” is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, to that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have. This is not the subject of the present book, but we should note that some kind of divine inspiration of scripture was taken for granted in most of the ancient Israelite scriptures themselves as well as in the beliefs of the early Christians (p. 37).
He admits that
many of the accusations not merely of diversity but of flat contradiction arise not from historical study proper but from impositions on the texts of categories from which later Western thought (from, for instance, the sixteenth or the nineteenth century (p. 52).
He explains that
‘the Reformers’ sola scriptura slogan was part of their protest against perceived medieval corruptions. Go back to scripture, they insisted, and you will find the once-for-all death of Jesus but not the Mass, justification by faith but not purgatory, the power of God’s word but not that of the pope…. Nothing beyond scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved (pp. 71-72, emphasis in original).
He stated that his major conclusion was
that the shorthand phrase “the authority of scripture,” when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community” (p. 114, emphasis in original).
He goes on to explain that he has argued in this book that
“the authority of Scripture” is really a shorthand for “the authority of God exercised through scripture”; and God’s authority is not merely his right to control and order the church, but his sovereign power, exercised in an through Jesus and the Spirit, to bring all things in heaven and on earth into subjection to his judging and healing rule. (Ephesians 1 sets this out more spectacularly than most passages.) In other words, if we are to be true, at the deepest level, to what scriptural authority really means, we must understand it like this: God is at work, through scripture (in other words, through the Spirit who is at work as people read, study, teach and preach scripture) to energize, enable and direct the outgoing mission of the church, genuinely anticipating thereby the time when all things will be made new in Christ (p. 138).
However, after reading his book, I find that N. T. Wright is skirting around or avoiding the issue of the nature of the Bible and how it was given in the original documents – infallibility or inerrancy are far from his keyboard, but he does admit that ‘the church clearly can’t live without the Bible’ (p. ix). My question is, ‘What kind of Bible?’ Is it one that includes inaccuracies and contradictions, or as ebia, a supporter of N. T. Wright’s view, states that it does not matter if in factual detail there is an error in the texts?
Wright does include in the preface the statement that he has tried
to face head on the question of how we can speak of the Bible being in some sense “authoritative” when the Bible itself declares that all authority belongs to the one true God, and that this is now embodied in Jesus Himself (p. xi).
But how do we know this book is a reliable and trustworthy document? Did the God of truth, perfection and justice (Deut. 32:4; Ps 19:9; John 17:17; 2 Tim 3:16; Rev 15:3-4; 16:7; 19:1-4) who gave us the Bible, give his revelation in a document that includes errors and contradictions in the original manuscripts?
These questions need to be answered and I do not think that N. T. Wright did that in his book on the authority of Scripture, The Last Word (HarperSanFrancisco 2005).
Major problem of omission
After I wrote the above, I sought out reviews of Wright’s, The Last Word. Theologian John Frame measured my theological pulse when he wrote:
By way of evaluation: So far as I am aware, there is no statement in the book that I simply disagree with. And the book contains some excellent insights about Scripture, on its kingdom context, the canon, and Scripture’s relations with tradition, reason, and experience. Wright also has valuable things to say here about biblical interpretation: on how the New Testament fulfills the Old, and on what a “literal” interpretation ought to mean.
But there is a major problem of omission. If one is to deal seriously with the “Bible wars,” even somehow to transcend them, one must ask whether and how inspiration affects the text of Scripture. Wright defines inspiration by saying that “by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have” (37). But the same can be said about the books in my library: that God moved writers, editors, publishers, et al., so that the books in my library are the ones God wants me to have. Nevertheless, there are some horrible books in my library (which I keep for various good reasons). So it is important to ask whether inspiration is simply divine providence, or whether it carries God’s endorsement. Is God, in any sense, the author of inspired books?
Wright doesn’t discuss this question, but Scripture itself does. The Decalogue was the writing of God’s finger (Ex. 31:18). The prophets identified the source of their preaching by the phrase “thus says the Lord.” Jesus attributes David’s words to the Spirit (Matt. 22:43). Paul says that the Old Testament Scriptures were God-breathed, i.e., spoken by God (2 Tim. 3:16). And Paul connects this God-breathed quality with the authority of Scripture, indicating that biblical authority is not only the authority of divine power, but also of divine speech.
Or look at it this way: “Word of God” in Scripture, is not merely “a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating” (38).” It is all of these things, but it is also, obviously, divine speech (as Wright himself recognizes on 34). When God creates, for example, he creates by speech, by commanding the world to exist. Prophecy and Scripture are “word of God,” not only in their power, but also as speech and language: not only power, but also meaning.
Wright is right to say that God’s word, and specifically Scripture, is more than doctrines and commands. But if inspiration confers divine authorship, and if God’s word is true speech, then it becomes very important, within the context of the kingdom narrative, to believe God’s doctrines and to obey God’s commands. Indeed, as Wright notes, the very nature of narrative poses the question of whether the events described “really happened:” that is, what should we believe about them, and how should we act in response. But then narrative itself implies doctrines to be believed and commandments to obey.7
That is what the Bible wars are about. One can believe everything Wright says about the narrative context of biblical authority and still ask responsibly whether the words of Scripture are God’s words to us. Wright’s book does not speak helpfully to this question, nor does it succeed (if this was Wright’s purpose) in persuading us not to ask it. So, like the worship books mentioned earlier, The Last Word does not discuss what is most relevant to the controversy. It proposes a context, but a context is not enough. Two people who accept Wright’s proposal may nevertheless differ radically on the question of whether the Bible is the word of God.
Many of us would like to get away from the debates of the liberal/fundamentalist controversy. But if Scripture is God’s very word, then we cannot be indifferent to its doctrinal and ethical authority, or silent against attacks on that authority. Wright has done some great work in defending the truth of Scripture, and it is evident in the present volume that he has scant regard for the scholarship of enlightenment skeptics like those of the Jesus Seminar. So he has himself entered into the Bible wars. But are these wars merely contests to see who is the better scholar, or is the word of God itself at issue? If the latter, much more must be said and done (Review of N. T. Wright, The Last Word. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005, by John M. Frame).
How did ebia respond to the above?
You’re going around in circles because you are trying to force an answer in terms of a framework that is not one that I or Tom accept.
I don’t accept that in inconsistency in factual detail is an error in texts that aren’t trying to communicate that level of factual detail (see my Maths textbook analogy) and therefore to keep framing the question on those terms is, to me, to misformed the question.
My response is that it is not I who is going around in circles. Ebia seems to like Tom Wright’s perspective where he doesn’t want to admit to the infallibility of Scripture in the original documents, which affirms the origin of Scripture, which is consistent with the nature of the God of truth who does not lie.
John Frame picked that one well. It is what Wright leaves out that is what I consider of critical importance. Is Scripture truthful (infallible) or does it include discrepancies, even in minor factual details?
Crossan, J D 1994. Jesus: A revolutionary biography. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.
Crossan, J D 2007. God and empire: Jesus against Rome, then and now. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R W, Hoover, R W & The Jesus Seminar 1993. The five gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
 OzSpen #89, Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘Bible contradictions’, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7643378-9/ (Accessed 7 April 2012).
 Ebia #99, ibid, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7643378-10/ (Accessed 7 April 2012).
 Ebia #101, Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘Bible contradictions’, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7643378-10/ (Accessed 7 April 2012).
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 16 October 2015.