I’m in the midst of an excellent theological discussion with a friend of mine, who also happens to be a skeptic. One point he brought up revolves around the apparent discrepancies and contradictions in the bible…scripture that we, who call ourselves followers of God, believe is “God-breathed.”
One point I brought up to him regarding these discrepancies was that some gospel accounts, to use that example, were written for a particular audience and would have been readily understood by the intended reader within the cultural and historical context of the 1st century. We–those of us with a 21st century, Western mindset–would do well to understand this context, and that this context in no way diminishes the impact of the intended gospel message for today.
For instance, when Mark describes the crucifixion of Jesus, the events he details, and the sequence he writes, perfectly mirror the ascension of a Roman emperor onto the throne. A parallel that Mark’s intended reader would have picked up on instantly—he’s telling us that Jesus’ death was, in fact, His ascension onto the throne of heaven!
My friend asked a very relevant question of me (and my answer follows)…
I’m curious, how would you have answered?
What about the contradictions that can’t be understood that way?
Herein, I think, is the fundamental difference between the beliefs that you and I hold. The obvious answer to your question is that I don’t know enough about the Bible to accurately or thoroughly answer many of the specific scriptural question(s) that you or other skeptics rightly pose. However, the key difference is that I hold out hope that, in my unfolding understanding of scripture, these answers will be revealed to me in time; maybe not to anyone else’s satisfaction, but at least to mine. And if in my quest for knowledge not everything becomes clear to me, which I realistically don’t think will happen, I will still be satisfied in my belief of what I am able to discern. All I know is the quest will be ongoing until I pass on.
In other words, I’m okay with what I don’t know; because either, a) at some point it will become clearer to me, or; b) it’s not a big enough rock in my path to cause me to stumble.
Which isn’t to say I’ve never doubted, or questioned, or raged, but I can look back on each of those times that I have (and still do, at times) and see that eventually the resolution has driven me closer to God, and sharpened my understanding and acceptance of the gospel…every time.
Just to be sure, I looked up the Merriam Webster definition of ‘inerrant’, which is “free from error”. Do I feel the bible is free from error? Yes, I do. Do I feel there are discrepancies and apparent contradictions within the bible? Yes, I do.
But consider this, and I maybe I have brought this up before: If you and I were asked to write individual narratives of our theological discussions over the past two years, for example, I firmly believe we’d come up with two very differing accounts—facts and details aside. There would be some details that would line up just fine, and some aspects would possibly (probably) vary in timing or specifics and, in fact, some may even conflict. Then there would be the things that you’d come up with that I’d have forgotten about and vice versa.
Does that make either account wrong? Does that nullify the entire narrative? Does that mean the events never actually happened? And what if my intended audience for these narratives was fellow Christian believers and yours were fellow skeptics? Could the entire tone therefore be different? Would some aspects be highlighted and some neglected…purposely, due to the intended audience?? Does that mean neither of us was ‘inspired’ in some way to write what we wrote?
I guess it comes down to how we choose to define God’s inspiration: What was he inspiring the writer to pen? And, what is he inspiring the writer’s intended readership to hear? Those two questions alone are ripe for personal interpretation!
I’ve heard several explanations for various discrepancies; some wildly speculative, and some quite plausible. Personally, on several accounts, I’m okay with plausible. And, I accept that some people aren’t. When I hear something like Mark’s retelling of Christ’s crucifixion as paralleling a Roman emperor’s ascension because that’s what his audience would have immediately connected, I’m willing to accept the plausibility of that, despite discrepancies with other gospel accounts, each of whom may have had differing audiences they were speaking to. Again, I’m conveying my own understanding of Christianity and the scriptures and not with the intention of a blanket explanation of theology.
I’m always extremely hesitant to engage in specific interpretations of scripture, as you well know, because I think each person comes to understanding in their own way, by various means and through varying timing. And, though a person may not understand or agree with a particular interpretation at the moment, this does not mean that over time and with increased revelation they won’t reach a similar understanding on their own. In other words, something may be said that at the time makes no sense or has no present bearing to a person’s question, but down the road the person will uncover some research that causes them to look back and go, “Ohhh, that’s what this meant; that’s how this part ties to that part”, etc., etc. This is what has happened to me on more than a few occasions, and continues today. That’s why I keep using the term ‘unfolding understanding’. The onus is solely on the person’s willingness to do their own due diligence and be open to an alternative point of view.