Crazy Justifications

I’ve just read this “Contradictions in the Resurrection Accounts?” post at the Saints and Sceptics blog. I have followed their apologetics ministry for a while and, to their credit, they do seem to set out to address the objections people will bring up when they consider the Christian faith.

But this post really brought home to me the extent of the mental gymnastics which must be performed to ignore and dismiss the inconsistencies and variations that are contained within Christian scriptures.

The Resurrection is the central concept of the Christian faith. It institutes the age of salvation and sets up Christ as the ultimate sacrifice. But, as is clear from the blog post above, the variation in how this absolutely essential doctrine is recorded in the 4 different gospels is – when you stop and truly, honestly analyse it – utterly staggering.

I am really mindful of how I would have reacted to this post maybe 2 years or so ago. I know that it would have eased my concerns over how this story can be so different in different place, yet so pivotal. It would have given me a confidence that I was OK with what I believed and that there was justification for it. And it would have reenforced my views that people who cited all the inconsistencies and contradictions in scripture were just misguided secularists with their own agenda.

But my goodness, things are very different now. On reading the content of that post, you can only admire the determination of the writer in setting out their stall and sticking with it to the bitter end.

And I know that David Glass has no doubts over the acceptability and accuracy of what he has written. I don’t believe it’s intended but there’s a haughty dismissiveness in the tone of the post which seems slightly ignorant of the subject matter and the raised eyebrows caused by reading it.

However, the logic and explanations contained just flabbergast me now. I can think of no other way of putting it.

What always strikes me when you get into this level of analysis over what are clear differences is the way people abandon any concern for the original writings or language. There is so much work required to get the English texts to make any sense that context and history generally disappears. And the fact that books were not written and structured as they are in our King James-driven editions nowadays.

Let’s do the courtesy of actually looking at the arguments put forward:

  1. Women at the tomb:
    “The Gospels differ in terms of the women who went to the tomb on the Sunday morning… A contradiction? Hardly.”“…provided we permit the authors to be selective, there’s really not much of a problem.”

    Really? If we’re being utterly semantic about the meaning of the word “contradiction”, perhaps we have something to stand on. OK then. The issue is the specifics of exactly who was there and why the gospel writers made their particular selections of reporting the different attendees. I cannot comprehend why the stories need to be different – why did God inspire the writers in such a way as to raise so many questions? How did the writers settle on the women they did? Only Mary Magdalene has any further role in any version of the story, so why include or exclude any of the others?

  2. Reaction of the visiting women:
    “Mark says they fled from the tomb and ‘said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’… Apart from Mark there is agreement that the women go to tell the disciples. Does Mark contradict these accounts? No. It seems fairly clear that all he means is that they didn’t speak to anyone on the way because they were afraid…”“There certainly is a significant difference between John’s account… But it is hardly a contradiction. A plausible reconciliation…[word salad]”

    No. I’m sorry. Mark clearly contradicts the other accounts. Mark also records that the visitors were told by the angel to go and tell the disciples, but apparently they wouldn’t disobey that command. So Mark’s record contradicts itself never mind the other 3! Working this round to anything other than a contradiction is a true feat of linguistic acrobatics.

  3. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances:
    This whole section is a long collection of ifs, buts and maybes. Luke’s records were always meant to be followed up by Chapter 2 (i.e. the book of Acts). But the book states quite clearly that Jesus did lots to prove He was alive, so that’s alright. Luke has simply been selective over what he has decided to include in his narrative.

I can’t force myself to buy these explanations. There is too much effort required to make the components add up.

But the most striking and worrying aspect is that these 3 points are simply the tip of the iceberg with regards to resurrection inconsistencies and a proverbial drop in the ocean with regards to similar problems within the whole of Scripture. Yes, I know there are many with proposals for answers from many experts and scholars much more qualified than I, but there is a consistent requirement for hard work to get to the required destination.

And I mean no disrespect to either Saints and Sceptics or David Glass in particular – reading this just caused enough of a irritation in me to feel the need to articulate my thoughts.

Finding the Flaws: Inerrancy

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).

But…but…but…

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.