Given the importance of the Bible to Republican political theology, I thought I would take a look at some of the contradictions contained within this supposedly empirical, scientific, and infallible book. The Bible is full of contradictions great and small. These contradictions are disturbing because Irenaeus assured us in the second century that “the scriptures are perfect because they were uttered by the Word of God and his Spirit.” Now granted, the Bible as we know it had not been assembled yet in Irenaeus’ time but fundamentalists continue to assure us that his guarantee remains valid.
Fundamentalists cannot admit to this lack of perfection; it is a violation of their faith in the Bible as the inerrant word of God. But the contradictions are there for all to see. Some will use the excuse that only a believer can understand the Bible. Intellectuals, they say, are the problem, including especially intellectual pastors ( listened to this discussion in a local restaurant a week or so back). Others will now argue them away by asserting that “These are not contradictions in substance.” Of course, this is an entirely inaccurate assertion. Whether or not people is saved by Works or Faith seems like a substantive issue, doesn’t it? What is at stake is an eternity in heaven or hell, after all. And it dodges the issue: perfect means without contradictions.
This is the book they want us to live by, they want to legislate into the law of the land. How, exactly, is anyone to do that given it is such a mish-mash of contradictions?
The Creation Story
- The Book of Genesis presents us with two mutually incompatible creation stories. From 1-2.4 we have the standard 7-day model with which we are all familiar. But from 2.4 on we are given an entirely new scenario, one which sees the creation of Adam and Eve (remember, they were already presumably created along with all the other men and women in 1.26, where he enjoined them to “be fruitful and multiply.” Of course, this turns out to be very bad advice indeed, since this is the sort of nonsense that gets them in trouble in the second story. As Robin Lane Fox observes, the second story “flatly contradicts the first.” In the second story, man precedes vegetation but in the first, vegetation appears at 1.12 while man only arrives at 1.26 – a neat trick. Remember too that the Garden of Eden exists only in the second story; it is not present in the first, an interesting omission. Obviously, the two stories date from different times, but both before 400 BCE, after which date a third writer combined them into a single account. “Probably,” as Lane Fox concludes, “the two stories had become too well known for either to be excluded.”
Just as someday, should Sarah Palin win in 2012, we will have two stories of Paul Revere, one where he warns the British and another where he warns the Patriots. Some future generation will be left to sort out that particular contradiction.
Will the Real Ten Commandments Please Stand Up?
- Even the famous 10 Commandments so popular with Right Wing Christianity in America are not so cut and dried as people seem to think (including those self-same Right-wingers. The 10 Commandments are given twice, once at Exodus 20 and again at Deuteronomy 5. If that isn’t confusing enough, we are also presented with three mutually incompatible sets of laws (Exodus 20-23; Leviticus 11-27; Deuteronomy 12-26). In any case, as Lane Fox rightly observes, “There are not ten, and they are patently not original commands which were given to Moses by the mountain god of Sinai.” Though they may originally date from around the 10th century BCE, “the versions which we now read have been enlarged and varied and their final form may be as late as c. 550 BC.”
So they’re putting revised Ten Commandments on our public buildings?
- This is a big one. We are given two different events by which to date the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, they are mutually contradictory; both cannot be true. The first is the account in Luke. Luke tells us that the Annunciation (the foretelling of Jesus’ birth) takes place in the reign of Herod (1:5), who died in 4 BCE (some scholars place his death a year earlier). Her pregnancy must have been of unusually long duration though because at 2:1 Luke tells us that Jesus was born when Quirinius took his census, which was 6 CE. Therefore Jesus was in Mary’s womb for a good 10 years, possibly 11! Matthew (2:1) tells us that Jesus was born “during the time of King Herod” and there is no mention of Quirinus. The simple problem is that the taxation could not have taken place during Herod’s reign because under Herod they were Jewish, not Roman citizens. If the taxation took place after Herod, a problem still remains, because Galilee was not part of the Roman province over which Quirinus oversaw the census. No Galilean would have been compelled to leave an independent Jewish tetrarchy in order to be taxed in an adjoining Roman province. In the end, the very fact of these inconsistencies is testament to early Christian ignorance of the details of Jesus’ birth and of the relatively late date of their written accounts.
Appearance of the Risen Jesus
- In 1 Cor 15:1f Paul gives his version of events. But in Luke 24:13 (and remember, Luke was an educated Greek speaker) Luke “shows a close similarity to the report of the appearance of the deified Romulus, Dion. Hal. II.63.3f, and Livy I.16.5f
The Last Supper
- Mark 14:12 says that the Last Supper was the Passover Meal, or Pesher, but John 19:14 states that the meal occurred the day before Passover.
The Origins of the Law
- In Exodus we learn that God gave the law to the Jews directly. But Paul in Galatians (3:19) asserts that the law came not from God but through angelic intermediaries. This is obviously another substantive contradiction, since Paul’s argument was designed to show that the Law was unimportant. If, however, Paul was wrong and the Law was handed down to the Jews directly from the hand of YHWH, then it would seem inopportune, not to say unwise (to say the least) to disregard it. After all, according to Paul then, the 10 Commandments really aren’t all that important, are they?
- In 1 Thessalonians Paul says that Jesus is coming back right away. His return is expected at any time. But in 2 Thessalonians this has changed to “other things have to happen first” (2:1-12). What happened? Obviously, the Parousia didn’t.
- In 1 Corinthians and also in 2 Corinthians, Paul argues that the resurrection has not already occurred (cf. Rom 6:1-6) but in Ephesians, a letter not considered by scholars to be genuine, Paul argues that they have already experienced the spiritual resurrection and are already “sitting in the heavenly places.” This poses no problems for liberal scholars willing to admit one letter is a forgery, but how do apologists reconcile the fact that one must be wrong if both texts represent the inerrant word of God?
And if it’s already occurred, why are people sweating Jesus’ return? Isn’t a strong pro-Israel policy kinda unnecessary then?
Paul’s Theology and Means of Salvation
- In Acts 13:16-42 Christ’s death leads to forgiveness of sins. But in Paul’s epistles what we learn is that Christ’s death provides atonement for sins (a sacrifice made for the sins of others – “this atonement purchased a right standing before God” But forgiveness is being let off the hook altogether for something you’ve done, no requirements of payment. In Acts, sacrifice is required for forgiveness of the debt because this is Luke’s explanation for why Jesus had to die. Christ’s death here is an occasion for repentance. This is not the same as atonement, and this is an important theological problem indeed, not just a matter of peripheral details.  This is yet another of those substantive contradictions that are not supposed to exist, and a rather important one at that.
Paul’s Devotion to Jewish Law
- Acts 21-22 and 28:17 shows that charges against Paul are trumped up. Paul has done nothing contrary to the Law. But in 1 Cor 9:21 and 2:11-14 we see that Paul could live like Jew or a Gentile yet attacks Cephas for not living like a Gentile. In Gal 2:21 Paul tells us that if the Law is necessary, then Jesus died in vain. So why today are fundamentalists pushing the law down our throats? Was Paul, who supposedly talked to Jesus, a liar? Or did his source (Jesus) not know what he was talking about?
Faith versus Works
- In Galatians Paul writes “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is (any longer) in force, but rather Faith working by love. You were running well. Who stopped you, that you did not obey the Truth?” (5:6-7). In Galatians he speaks of his freedom from the Law and of Law as slavery (2:4-5). In Corinthians he writes again about his freedom from the Law, comparing himself to a runner in a race (1 Cor 9:24-26). In 1 Cor 8:7-11 and 9:22 he characterizes those who obey the Law as “weak”. Yet James says, “For whoever shall keep the whole Law, but stumbles on one (small point), shall be guilty (of breaking) it all (2:10). And most tellingly: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder’ (James 2.14-19) and at 2:26, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Both cannot be right, both Paul and James. Who is to be believed? Or will it be recognized finally that these are two entirely different theologies, Pauline Christianity and Judaism? This is the “Mother of All” substantive contradictions and for very obvious reasons. How is a Christian to get to heaven? Of necessity one of them must be wrong, and that doorway, if chosen, leads not to heaven but to eternal damnation.
 Kreeft & Tacelli (1994), 215, who fail to mention any of these substantive errors in their meager collection.
 Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (NY: Vintage Books, 1991), 15-23.
 Robin Lane Fox (1991), 53-54.
 Herod’s death is dated by an eclipse of the moon dated to 12-13 March, 4 BCE. The date of the census is known from Josephus, Ant. 18.1 and from Cassius Dio (find citation), and there is nowhere any record of an “empire-wide” census such as that described in Luke. The Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated in Christianity on March 25.
 Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, 143-144.