All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…
2 Timothy 3:16
One of the most foundational aspects of conservative, fundamentalist Christianity is the absolute and total acceptance that what Protestants consider to be the Scriptures are – to a word – inspired by the Spirit of the one, true, living God. That everything we read and use as the basis of our sermons has been laid on the heart of the writer, and that the writer of each book is generally known and unquestioned.
In some parts of the country, there is a sub-group who insist that the 16th century King James Version is the only acceptable English version of the Holy Word. I was never a subscriber to that view because I knew that none of the original texts nor original spoken words would have been in the English of a particular age. But the idea that God had inspired the underlying story telling made a certain amount of sense to me growing up.
I was aware, however, that many, many people pointed at Scripture and proposed a not insignificant number of inconsistencies, contradictions and inaccuracies. I heard most of them, and I scoffed heartily. I argued that these were matters of a little noun here and a bit of meaningless verbage there and none of them had any major impact on the narrative of the Bible as a whole. These damaging accusations were simply the stirrings of the unenlightened who didn’t get the important nuances and, of course, hated Scripture and the Christian religion built upon it.
As I hinted in my opening post, my endeavours at reading the Scripture from start to finish were one of the things that loosened the stick that was preventing the rock of my faith from rolling away. And one of the stories that really sticks in my head is the story of Abimelech in Genesis.
You remember Abimelech, don’t you? The guy to whom Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister to protect them? And God held it against Abimelech?
Well, I’ve obviously known this story for years. But as I was reading through this story this time in the context of reading the book of Genesis within a daily plan, I got a strange sensation of having come across it before. And do you know what I discovered? I discovered I was right! To cut a long story short, this Wikipedia article fleshes out the details of what I came to understand about these wife-sister narratives (i.e. there are 3 of them in Genesis alone).
I’m not sure I can quite get across the impact of this “kick in the teeth”. On the surface, you might not consider this on its own as terribly significant. But, to me, it was. It was massive. I suddenly began to think there was perhaps more to what people had been saying for such a long time. There were other examples, but this is the one that sticks most clearly in my mind. It acted as a prod for me to begin looking more deeply into Biblical contradictions than I had in the past.
And I really, really didn’t like what I found. Not so much from the point of view of the clear issues with our English Scriptures – I can now see those for myself quite clearly – but more from the perspective of how the Bible came to be in any form. When it was written, who it was written by, and the original manuscripts which have been critiqued to give us what we have now. Not to mention anything of the Apocrypha!
I’m going to go ahead and assume that few of us are directly involved in textual criticism of original Scripture sources. Oh, some of us may know Greek or Hebrew. Some of us may be able to read some words or phrases of the original manuscripts. I can’t, so again, I rely on experts to tell me the truth. And in this particular sphere, you can find an expert to tell you almost any variation of “the truth” that you could possibly imagine. Consensus is rare – well, at least from my point of view. The theological community claims to have all the evidence to back their stance and the non-religious community seems utterly convinced the pro-theological position is poppycock.
How can we know?
Given this collective uncertainty, or perhaps the knowledge of where we should look to get the right answers, I simply feel you have to look at things from your own point of reference. I know there are significant dangers in applying experience to anything for which a definitive truth exists – it’s rare for us to have enough of such experience in an adequately diverse range of subjects to reach what you’d call an educated and well-informed conclusion. I appreciate this is something I need to address in the coming weeks and months by reading and try to understand more of the history and origins of Scripture and the techniques of criticism which has given us what we have today.
Thinking back over my personal history of reading the Bible and very, very Christian Bible studies, I realise how flawed, shallow and biased they were. I realise how much I selectively glossed over the problems with what I was reading and how much of the Bible I didn’t actually know because it doesn’t fit into these well-formed walk-throughs.
I know that many, many scholars around the world have answers for most of these challenges, but they just don’t carry for me any more. I have come to think of the idea of Scripture being anything other than a constructed, manipulated, political tool as one of the most monumental leaps of faith imaginable.