Thinking about discrepancies in Scripture

I highly recommend Relevant Magazine, both online and in print. This article is a bit shallow but raises interesting questions important for anyone studying the Bible. How you answer the question of “is the Bible inerrant?” – which leads to the question “well what do we mean by inerrant?” – will completely shape how you read and interpret Scripture.

While in seminary this was a challenge to me. I had never even heard of the idea that there were discrepancies in the Bible, and honestly believed that there simply couldn’t be. However when confronted with the idea that Jericho may have not had the enormous walls attributed to it, or that there were differences in some other historical accounts, I was a bit flummoxed. And if you haven’t thought about it, read the Gospels and consider what day Jesus was crucified on. Anyway, this article makes a good point regarding what we can and should mean by “inerrant”.

I think the sad thing that is brought out in this article is how, in many Christian circles, asking these kinds of questions is not permitted. Questioning details is tantamount to questioning Scripture. The argument goes that if Scripture isn’t fundamentally and literally perfect in every detail then there’s no reason to believe any of it (which is a huge jump). If we can’t have a Christian culture where asking questions about a fundamental resource for our faith is OK, then our faith is built on a shaky foundation.

article after the jump >>

What Do We Do With Discrepancies in the Bible?

I mean that is a great way. She has spent more time in the Scriptures than anyone I have ever met. Her Bible is color coded with highlights and nearly every page has notes in the margins. She prays for people constantly and recites the promises of God in troubling situations. This woman loves God and she loves the Bible.

So during a trip home I was floored when she casually asked me a question about the Bible. This had never really happened. It was like having a deer walk up to you in the woods. You have to move slowly so you don’t freak it out. So there I was, feeling suddenly really hyper-aware of the slight movement of air on the hairs of my neck, waiting anxiously to hear what magical question my mother might ask ME about the BIBLE.

“I was reading about the resurrection and I noticed something strange,” she pondered.

“…Oh, is that so?” I said with my voice barely hiding a quiver.
“Yes,” she said suddenly pausing. I felt a twitch in my eyebrow.
“And?” I prompted, still pretending to be caught up on my iPhone.
“Well,” she finally said, “I noticed that the book of John says that one woman comes to Jesus’ tomb.” She paused again, carefully searching for the right words. “But Matthew says two women came to the tomb. And Mark has three women coming to the tomb.”Silence filled the air.

“What do you make of that?” She asked.

To fill you in, she’s right. The verses are John 20:1Matt. 28:1; and Mark 16:1. They don’t share the same details about the morning of Jesus’ resurrection. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a discrepancy: “A lack of compatibility or similarity between two or more facts.” It’s minor. It doesn’t disprove anything about the historical truth of Christ’s resurrection. Some people have even attempted to explain it away by some tricky linguistic gymnastics.

But it is there.

Do you feel the silence suddenly filling the space here?

I ask that because for most Christians, these things aren’t supposed to exist. Pointing them out is an automatic red flag in many Christian circles. My mom asked me, not because she didn’t have anyone else to ask, but because asking anyone else would come with repercussions. What pastor can even start to admit something like this? This, readers, is dangerous ground for church-folk.

But this doesn’t stop certain other groups from doing the research and the Internet has made that easier than ever. A quick google search can show infographs that quickly calculate as many as 439 contradictions in the Bible. Now, if we’re honest, that’s stretching it. A lot of the Bible is metaphorical and poetic, translated from an ancient culture and language, and you can’t really find fault with a proverb that uses colorful language to make a point. So these guys have their own agenda, too.

But most of us are somewhere in the middle. We’ve come across a few verses that have made us raise an eyebrow, so we quickly move on to a different thought or verse. These aren’t comforting things to think about because the Bible is our link to God—accessible at any time or place. This is the Word of God, so it can’t have mistakes, right?

Well, no.

See, the Bible is the Word of God, but it’s been filtered through the word of us. During Yom Kippur this year, many synagogues told the story of the martyr and Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion. He was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive. If you’ve ever been to a synagogue or known a Jewish person, they treat the Torah with the utmost respect. To burn it with this Rabbi was an attempt at an ultimate form of humiliation. His final words? “I see the parchment burning, but the letters are flying to heaven.”

God’s Word is not bound by paper.

A Rabbi I know had an interesting take on Psalm 24. This chapter asks the question “Who can ascend the Lord’s mountain? Who can stand in his holy sanctuary?” But it doesn’t leave us hanging for long and answers the question immediately. “Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart.” This Rabbi understood that even if you found God’s holy mountain or sanctuary, it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything to you unless your heart was in the right place.

This isn’t about who is better or being perfect. Purity and cleanliness are ways that we show our dedication to God. And dedication comes from the right desires. When we desire God—when we take steps to find God and hear from God—we will find ourselves in God’s holy sanctuary.

And the same is true of the Bible. We can come to the Bible like many do, with aggression and anger and a manipulative attitude, and find things to discredit or disprove the Bible. We can literally read the text in the Bible without ever reading the Word of God.

But one can also come to the Bible with a yearning and a desire for a pure heart. It is in these moments that God is revealed to us in the Bible. Mary, Martha, and Salome may have visited the tomb together, and they may have visited it separately. But the story is not about how many women came to grieve. The story is about how hard it is to grieve when someone you thought was dead has turned out to be very alive.

And perhaps that’s you. Maybe the Bible has been dead to you for a long time and you’ve happened to stumble upon this article in the same way that Mary came to grieve over the body of her lost friend and teacher. But to their surprise, Mary and these women received a message that day. They received a message that the Word of God made manifest had been resurrected and transformed and was not dead. God’s Words, God’s message to us, is bigger than death, and it’s bigger than a book.

So next time you open your Bible, may you, too, step into the holy sanctuary of God’s presence and read with eyes that see the letters fly off the pages.


4 thoughts on “Thinking about discrepancies in Scripture

  1. Professor Peter Enns wrote a great book on the subject, I think its called Inspiration and Incarnation or something like that. There is a great body of literature out there by Christians in which a positive discussion is occurring regarding the way the bible was written and the ‘discrepancies’. But sadly, evangelical protestants are generally not apart of the discussion; they don’t really want to be apart of the discussion as a matter of their choice.

    • I think part of that falls on the all-or-nothing problem that some Evangelicals face regarding Scripture. Either it’s all 100% literally true exactly how it is written or none of it is. That’s only one view of inerrancy though. Unfortunately we (just the generalized “we” here) can hold on to “our” view as “THE” view and see everything else as heterodoxy or just plain wrong. Then people get afraid to ask questions as they might find themselves on the outside looking in.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful, well written article. Three comments:
    1) I suspect that “most Christians” … most likely refers to “most American, evangelical Protestants” here.
    2) This is the kind of encounter with scripture that might occur in the midst of health or other life-changing crisis. Therefore, someone called to minister as a professional chaplain might benefit from having studied a bit of Biblical Hebrew and a bit of New Testament Greek in seminary; I know that’s been true for me. The Word of God has been mediated through messy, human history; much of what we have received as written word springs from a fount of rich oral tradition that has been filtered through many translations, into many languages, laboriously copied by hand, until what we have are translations recovered from the written word many centuries downstream. And yet, little selections from my pocket scripture can still mediate the Word with life affirming grace in my encounters with people in crisis. Amazing.
    3) Exposure to the work of theologians and/or believers from other faith traditions– including the many ancient traditions of Orthodox, Jewish, and Roman Catholic is also very helpful. It broadens one’s universe of possibilities for response.

    • I suspect that “most Christians” … most likely refers to “most American, evangelical Protestants” here.
      You mean they aren’t the same thing? 🙂

      Thanks for your thoughts. I hadn’t initially posted this specifically for those of us in the field of Chaplaincy and rather just as a general interest article. But you bring out a great point in that crises can cause questions to come out that may have not been there before, or had been unspeakable. This acceptance of Scripture as “messy” but still “holy” can help to bridge gaps between those that don’t accept Chaplains because they don’t accept Scripture as inerrant. It can also allow those struggling to be free to be messy and holy as well.

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