Bible Inconsistencies

[First posted 9/20/07] Evangelicals will typically quote from the Bible to settle any question it speaks directly about, since they believe it’s God’s word. Some fundamentalists will repeat the phrase, “God said it, that settles it.” Using proof texts like those found in II Peter 1:21 where it’s said the prophets of old “spoke the words of God,” and II Timothy 3:16 which says Scripture is “God breathed,” they claim the very words in the Bible are from God (see also Matthew 5:18; 24:35; John 10:35; 17:17; Romans 3:2; 1 Corinthians 2:13; 15:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:15; I Timothy 5:18; Hebrews 1:1; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 3:2). However, there are several serious problems with this view:

It should be noted from the outset that there are several Christian theories of what it means to say the Bible is inspired. First, there is the “dictation” or “mechanical” theory, in which it’s believed God woodenly dictated the very words to the Biblical writers like someone might dictate a letter to a secretary. This is now almost universally rejected by Christians, since it’s obvious that each of the Biblical writers had a distinct style and vocabulary. Second, there is the “verbal-plenary” theory. It is “verbal” in that the very words in the Bible are God’s, although (somehow) not dictated by God. The end product is all that’s affirmed here, that the Bible is the very word of God, not how God accomplished this. It is “plenary” in that it’s believed that Bible is completely inspired in all of its parts. Some of those who believe in the verbal-plenary theory also believe that the Bible is the “inerrant” word of God containing no errors at all; while others maintain that the Bible may be regarded as their “infallible” rule of faith and practice in all religious, and ethical matters, but not in historical and scientific matters. Third, there is the “illumination” theory, where it’s believed God “breathed on” or illuminated the Biblical writers who then translated this so-called religious experience into words. Thus, the Bible does not contain the exact words of God; it only contains God’s thoughts as expressed through human beings, and as such, only the main thoughts of the Bible are inspired. Fourth, Karl Barth along with other neo-orthodox Christian thinkers affirm that the Bible is a “witness” to God’s revelation and not God’s revelation itself. God uses the Bible in a unique way when read or proclaimed to speak to people, although God could also use a Russian flute concerto to do so. Lastly, liberal Christians have adopted what can be called as that the “natural” theory, in that Biblical writers were only inspired in the sense that a poet is inspired. According to them, the spark of divine inspiration that is supposedly in us all burned a little brighter in their lives.

None of these theories have any evidence for them. Norman L. Geisler, for instance, claims that the resurrection of Jesus proves he is the divine Son of God, and as such, his words are God’s words. Therefore, since Jesus purportedly said to his disciples that the Spirit of God will “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), and that it will “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26), Geisler claims Jesus “guaranteed the inspiration of the New Testament.” There are a few problems with this, not the least of which is that even most conservative Biblical scholars do not think many of these twelve disciples, whom Jesus was directly speaking to, wrote anything. Paul was not there, nor was Mark, nor Luke, nor the author of Hebrews, nor the brothers of Jesus who supposedly wrote James and Jude. Some conservative scholars do not think the disciples Matthew or John wrote the gospels attributed to them, but that they were the product of two schools of thought. This leaves us with little or nothing that any of the disciples wrote who might have been present when Jesus purportedly spoke the words Geisler refers to.

Let me take aim here at the verbal-plenary view of inspiration, since that’s the overwhelming consensus among evangelical fundamentalist Christians. There are “errors of interpretation,” where the New Testament writers misinterpreted many Old Testament texts. There are “scientific errors” when it comes to the Genesis creation accounts. And if my arguments against the historicity of the Fall in the garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, the virgin birth of Jesus, the existence of Joseph of Arimathea, and Jesus’ resurrection are correct, then there are “historical errors,” some of which are fatal to the Christian faith itself. There are also “ethical errors” when it comes to the Inquisition, witch burnings, honor killings and slavery. These kinds of arguments are strong evidence against those Christians who affirm the Bible is “infallible,” rather than “inerrant.” So let me briefly address a few Biblical “inconsistency errors” that provide strong evidence against the claim that the Bible is “inerrant.” To do this I will utilize the arguments of Christian scholars who affirm the Bible is “infallible” against those who affirm “inerrancy.”

Stephen T. Davis, in The Debate About the Bible, argues against “inerrancy” and affirms instead “infallibility.” He argues that “the phenomena of Scripture do not support the claim that the Bible is inerrant.” Among the problems he argues for is the brutality of the Canaanite conquest (See Joshua 11:1-23. Davis says, “I frankly find it difficult to believe that it was God’s will that every Canaanite—man woman, and child—be slaughtered”); David’s numbering of his people (did God provoke him to do this as in II Samuel 24:1-2, or did Satan, as in I Chronicles, 21:1-2?); the mustard seed problem (Jesus said it was the smallest seed in Matthew 13:31-32, but it’s not the smallest seed); Matthew (27:9-10) claims to be quoting from Jeremiah (but “the quoted words are found nowhere in Jeremiah”); and the staff problem (did Jesus tell his disciples to take a staff with them, as we see in Mark 6:8, or not, as seen in Matthew 10:9-10?).

Paul J. Achtemeier, in The Inspiration of the Scripture, is a Christian thinker who understands Biblical inspiration as a “witness” inside the ongoing progressive nature of the community of faith. He wrote: “That there are errors in the ‘plain and obvious’ sense of Scripture has long been seen by those not committed to their denial.” Then he fills several pages of examples of these types of errors. One of the most interesting errors he uses to illustrate his point concerns how many times the cock will crow before Peter has denied Jesus three times. In Mark 14:30, Jesus says the cock will crow twice before Peter denies Jesus three times, while in Matthew 26:34; Luke 22:34 and John 13:38, Jesus is reported to have said before the cock crows just once Peter will deny him three times. And true to what each gospel says would happen is what happened. But they disagree with each other. Such a problem as this forced inerrantist Harold Lindsell in his book Battle for the Bible, to suggest that Peter didn’t just deny Jesus three times, but six times, with three of them taking place before the first crowing (following Matthew, Luke, and John) and three of them taking place before the second crowing (as in Mark). Achtemeier however, doesn’t let him get away with this. Of Lindsell’s argument he wrote, “He has thus convincingly demonstrated that none of the four (gospels) is inerrant, since none of them know what really happened, i.e., six denials. All claim three.”

Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, highlights the crisis of faith he had in believing the Bible was inspired when doing a research paper concerning who was the high priest when King David and his hungry men went into the temple to eat. In I Samuel 21:1-6 it says Ahimelech was the high priest, but in Mark’s gospel (2:25-26) we find Jesus saying Abiathar was the high priest. Ehrman developed a “bit convoluted” argument trying to harmonize this discrepancy. But when his professor suggested that Mark might have “just made a mistake,” he realized, in his words, “I had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch. I finally concluded, ‘Hmmm…maybe Mark did make a mistake. Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places too.”

Let me mention of few of them that troubled me the most as I was thinking about the inspiration and authority of the Bible. One) In Galatians 3:8, and 3:16, Paul indicates the promise to Abraham was to one child, or “seed”, which he says is Christ. In Genesis 12:7; 13:15 and 24:7, however, the original word in Hebrew is a plural word, “seeds.” The promise was not, as Paul said, to one particular seed, Jesus, but to Abraham’s children. Two) In Galatians 3:17 Paul claimed that the law came 430 years after Abraham received the promises from God, but according to Exodus 12:40-41 the Israelites lived in Egypt 430 years. They both cannot be accurate. Three) In Ephesians 4:8 Paul misquotes Psalms 68:18. Did Christ give gifts to the church (Ephesians) or did he receive gifts from the church (Psalms). To say Paul captured the intent of the quote due to Christ’s coronation, in which the giving and receiving of gifts usually take place, is not the same thing as quoting it accurately. Four) When did Jesus cleanse the temple? It’s simply not credible that he did it twice. Compare John 2:13-25, where Jesus did this at the beginning of his ministry, with Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15-17, and Luke 19:45-46, where they claim he did it during the week before he was crucified. There is even disagreement between Matthew Mark and Luke on which day during that week Jesus cleansed the temple! Five) How many Israelites were killed by a plague? Were 23,000 killed, as reported in I Corinthians 10:8, or 24,000, as seen in Numbers 25:9? Six) Who killed the large and mighty Goliath of the Philistines? Did David (I Samuel 17), Elhanan (II Samuel 21:19), or did Elhanan kill Goliath’s brother (I Chronicles 20:5)? Seven) Was Jarius’ daughter dying or already dead when he approached Jesus to ask him to do a miracle in her life (Matthew 9:18 or Mark 5:23)? Eight) What did the Centurion do and say concerning his servant who needed healing (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)? What did Jesus say? What did the people say? Who said what and when? In one account Jesus makes a statement, but in another account it was the people who made it. Nine) The writer of the book of Hebrews uses a mistranslation to argue a point. The word in Hebrews 10:5 is “body,” but in Psalms 40:6 it is “ears.” Ten) What exactly happened and when on the day Jesus was supposedly resurrected?

Valerie Tarico reveals just how Christians argue with regard to Bible inconsistencies in her book, The Dark Side. She writes, “a whole industry has sprung up to convince believers and non-believers alike that these difficulties are inconsequential.” She quotes from Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, where he tells his readers that when looking at the Bible one must first assume God inspired the authors and preserved them from error or mistake. Then she writes, “Archer says, essentially that the reader must start the process of inquiry by assuming a certain outcome. Don’t look for the most likely hypothesis suggested by the evidence, he says, nor the one that is most likely straightforward or reasonable. Start by believing that a certain conclusion is already true…Examine the evidence through the lens of that conclusion…Ask yourself, ‘What explanations or interpretations can I come up with that would allow me to maintain my belief that these texts are not contradictory?’ If you can find any at all, then you have succeeded in your task. By implication, if you cannot, the problem lies with you, not the text. Archer’s approach, in almost any other field of inquiry, would be considered preposterous.” I wholeheartedly agree.