On Biblical Consistency: An Argument

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So It Goes Offline
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On Biblical Consistency: An Argument

Posted: Mon Dec 07, 2015 4:25 am

Ryan Cox
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Writing 121
December 7, 2015

On Biblical Consistency: An Argument


"We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions." (Boice, et al, X)

These proclamations, dating to Chicago, Illinois, circa 1978, were penned at a conference called by Evangelical Bible scholars in response to the growing popularity of what they called “liberal Christianity,” which endorses, among other things, a textuo-critical interpretation of the Bible. The proclamations comprise Article XI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and they describe well the belief of hundreds of millions of lay-Evangelicals, worldwide, about the Bible’s factual reliability. The first statement asserts that the Bible contains only information which is, in every practical sense, correct. The second statement, quite nobly, confesses that, were the Bible to contain incorrect information, it would be fallible and, therefore, beg the question of its divine origin. Necessarily, then, if the Bible does contain information which contradicts a claim made elsewhere in its own pages, it is inconsistent with itself and cannot be regarded as infallible.

Importantly, explanations, typically referred to as apologetics, do exist for a number of the Bible’s potential inconsistencies, requiring examiners to exercise intellectual honesty in their analyses of problemed passages. After all, it is possible, given enough credulity, to rationalize even the Bible’s most difficult problems. It is also possible, given enough incredulity, to deny even the most plausible apologetics for those problems. With the possibility for such biases in mind, it falls on critics of all stripes to remain objective in our assessments -- to remain genuinely uninvested in a particular outcome. After all, the Bible is a collection of texts claiming inspiration from an omniscient, omnibenevolent god, and inasmuch, has prompted both egregious wars and joyous liberations, from its inception to the present day. The aim of this essay, in such a light, is to provide a perspective from which to evaluate the Bible which relies on facts alone, avoiding the influences of emotion and indoctrination.


The Bible presents its readers with a spectrum of potential consistency problems, ranging from statements that are very probably not contradictory to statements so probably contradictory that speaking of them in non-contradictory terms is irresponsible. For a debateable example, Genesis 6:19 shows the Biblical god commanding Noah, regarding the construction of Noah’s ark, “You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female...” (emphasis added), while Genesis 7:2-3 states, regarding the same event, “Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female...” (emphasis added). Apologists for this problem may hold a tenable position, inasmuch as they claim that God initially commanded Noah to take two of every “unclean” animal aboard the ark and then, four verses later, as Eric Lyons, M.Min. puts it, “... supplemented this original instruction, informing Noah in a more detailed manner to take more of the clean animals” (Lyons, ApologeticsPress.org). In simpler terms, it may be that the Biblical god gave Noah instructions, and then, later, added to the instructions. One wonders why a perfect being would opt to give incomplete instructions, but it is plausible that some unstated circumstance required the Biblical god to do just that.

Other problems of consistency, however, are significantly less resolvable. Genesis 1:24, for instance, claims that the world’s animals were created before Adam was created, while Genesis 2:7 claims that Adam was created before the animals were. Both situations cannot have occurred; either one account is wrong, the other account is wrong, or both accounts are wrong. Similarly, Genesis 1:26 states that Adam and Eve were created at the same time, followed by Adam’s naming the animals, while Genesis 2:7 claims that Adam was created, named the animals, and only after naming the animals saw the introduction of Eve. Genesis 2:4, 4:6, 12:28, 22:14 and 26:25 show the biblical god, hundreds of years prior to the birth of Moses, being referred to as “The Lord” (Jahveh or Jehovah), while Exodus 6:3 claims that he was first known as "The Lord" (Jahveh or Jehovah) at the time of the Egyptian Bondage, during the life of Moses. Genesis 7:7 shows Noah and his family entering the ark for the last time, while Genesis 7:13 shows them entering the ark again. Genesis 11:12 lists Arpachshad as the father of Shelah, though Luke 3:35-36 lists Cainan as the father of Arpachshad.

Genesis 11:26 states that Terah was seventy years old when his son, Abram, was born, and Genesis 11:32 states that Terah was two-hundred and five years old when he died, making Abram 135 at the time, though Genesis 12:4 states that Abram was seventy-five when he left Haram. (This was after Terah died, meaning that he could have been no older than one-hundred and forty-five when he died. Abram, then, was only seventy-five years old at the time that he was one-hundred and thirty-five years old). Genesis 10:5 shows that a number of languages were spoken before the language-generating events at the Tower of Babel, though Genesis 11:1 states that only one language had been spoken prior to. Genesis 16:15, Genesis 21:1-3 and Galatians 4:22 state that Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, while, according to Hebrews 11:17, he had only one son. Genesis 6:4 states that, prior to the flood, Nephilim (giants) existed, and Genesis 7:21 claims that all creatures but Noah and his family were killed by the flood, while Number 13:33 states that Nephilim existed after the flood.
It is important to note that these problems represent only a fraction of the consistency problems in the first half of the book of Genesis. Listing all of the consistency issues in Genesis, let alone the entire Old Testament, would be impractical, when listing a handful of them suffices to demonstrate one’s point. More exhaustive lists do exist, and they can be found on the Internet, but this author finds the listing of hundreds of possible inconsistencies excessive.

The New Testament’s consistency problems, however, are worth mentioning. Matthew 1:6, for instance, traces Jesus’ ancestral lineage through King David’s son, Solomon, while Luke 3:23 traces Jesus’ lineage through Nathan, another of David’s sons. Similarly, Matthew 1:17 lists twenty-seven generations between King David and Jesus, while Luke lists forty-two. Both inconsistencies merit lengthy apologetic explanations, which usually explain them in the context of ancient Israel’s cultural customs; the former, for instance, is often explained by stating that “Luke gives the genealogy of Mary ... while Matthew traces the family of Joseph” (Richards, L. 126), citing the differences in culture between the primarily Jewish audience for which matthew was writing and the primarily Greek culture for which Luke was writing. This apologetic, however, neglects both Matthew and Luke’s clearly listing Joseph as Jesus’ father, proving both genealogies to be patrilineal and not matrilineal. Likewise, the missing generations between Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s genealogy are explained in terms of ancient Near-Eastern culture: “There was nothing unusual about shortening a genealogy. An example of this can be found by comparing Ezra 7:1-5 with I Chr 6:3-15. In Ezra only 16 generations are recorded between Ezra and Aaron while in 1 Chronicles 22 generations are recorded” (Overstreet 310). This apologetic, however, places thousands of contemporary Gospel readers in the difficult position of understanding obscure Jewish cultural traditions. It also places billions of modern Gospel readers in the even more difficult position of not only investigating obscure Jewish cultural traditions, but obscure Jewish cultural traditions from hundreds of years prior, written in a language that they do not speak. With hundreds of thousands of transcription errors existing between the 5,600 original Greek New Testament manuscripts currently in human possession (Ehrman 84), scribal error is a far, far more likely explanation for the inconsistencies between Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s.

Furthermore, a fundamental question about Judeo-Christianity is begged by the apologetics for these discrepancies: with the threat of their eternal conscious torment looming, why would a compassionate, intelligent god communicate his plan of salvation to his subjects in language only spoken by a small fraction of the human community, and why would he require billions of those subjects to view the plan through the cultural lens of that primitive people-group? Again, with the apologetics for these seeming discrepancies so lengthy that they fill entire books, one is left wondering why a situation as dire as that of the non-believer could only be remedied by a book which appears in hundreds of places to disagree with itself and which requires extensive Hebrew scholarship to explain the apparent discrepancies? It would seem, for a god, far more rational, with eternal conscious torment at stake, to write a book so obviously consistent with itself that scarcely any question could be posited against it; this is, of course, not to mention ameliorating the hundreds of Biblical claims inconsistent with science, history, geography and philosophy.

Adding to the list of New Testament inconsistencies, Matthew 1:18 lists Jesus’ Annunciation as occurring after Mary’s conceiving him, while Luke 1:26 lists it as occurring before. Matthew 1:20 lists the Lord’s angel appearing to Joseph, while Luke 1:28 lists him speaking to Mary. Matthew 2:13-16 shows Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, to avoid Herod’s slaughter of all children under the age of two, (an event not mentioned in any historical source, written, oral or otherwise), while, in Luke 22:40, the couple stay in Jerusalem and return to Nazareth, without ever going to Egypt. Matthew 2:23 contains the prophecy "And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.'" Yet, this prophecy is not found anywhere in the Old Testament; in fact, it simply does not exist.

Matthew 3:11-14 and John 1:31-34 list John the Baptist as knowing Jesus’ divine identity prior to his baptism, while Matthew 11:23 lists John, after the baptism, sending disciples to inquire about Jesus’ identity. In Matthew 4:1-11, and in Mark 1:12-13, immediately following his baptism, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, resisting temptations presented by Satan, while in John 2:1-11, only three days after his baptism, Jesus attends a wedding in Cana. In Matthew 4:5-8, Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, then to the mountain top, while in Luke 4:5-9, Satan takes Jesus first to the mountain top, then to the temple. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus announces that anyone who calls another man a “fool” is punishable by hell fire, while in Matthew 7:26, he likens anyone who hears his words and fails to obey them to a fool, using the same Greek word for “fool” that he earlier condemned. Likewise, in Matthew 23:17-19, Jesus twice refers to the Pharisees as “fools,” again using the Greek word that he decried in chapter five. In 1st Corinthians 1:23, 3:18 and 4:10, Paul uses the same Greek word for “fool” to describe those who become “fools for Christ.”

The roster of Jesus’ twelve disciples, in Matthew 10:2 and Mark 3:16-19, include Thaddeus, while the same roster, in Luke 6:13-16, does not include Thaddeus, but instead includes Judas, the son of James. In Matthew 12:5, Jesus cites Old Testament law as stating that priests who profane the Sabbath are blameless, but no such statement is found anywhere in the Old Testament. In Matthew 12:30, Jesus announces that those who are not for him are against him, though Mark 9:40 describes Jesus as announcing that those who are not against him are for him; (both situations can not be true at the same time). Matthew 17:1-2 lists the Transfiguration as occurring six days after Jesus foretells his suffering, while Luke 9:28 lists it as occurring eight days after. In Matthew 26:6-13, Jesus is anointed with oil in Bethany, at the house of Simon the leper, while in Luke 7:36-38, he is anointed at the house of a Pharisee, in Galilee.

In Matthew 26:18-20, 57-68, 27:1-2, and in Mark 14:16-18, 53-72, 15:2, Jesus’ hearing was at night, on Passover; he was taken to Pilate in the morning. Meanwhile, in Luke 22:66-71, Jesus’ first hearing took place on the morning of Passover. Even more contradictory, in John 18:28, Jesus’ hearing took place on the day before Passover. In Matthew 26:59-66, Jesus was tried by the entire Sanhedrin, while Luke 22:66-71 describes no trial, but merely an investigation, and John 18-24 lists no hearing in front of Sanhedrin, but, simply, inquiries by Annas and Caiphas. Matthew 27:11-14 shows Jesus remaining silent before Pilate as he is charged, while John 18:33-37 shows Jesus participating in a lengthy philosophical discussion with him. In Matthew 27:46-50, and in Mark 15:34-37, Jesus’ last words are, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” while Luke 23:36 lists Jesus’ last words as, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” More divergent still, John 19:30 lists Jesus’ last words as, “It is finished.”

The order of events following Jesus’ crucifixion are so severely inconsistent that pages have been filled, listing all of their discrepancies: Jesus dies at different times of day; he is resurrected on different days; different parties are present at his empty tomb, saying different things; his ascension to heaven occurs on different days, in different places. The list goes on. The discrepancies in the New Testament number in the hundreds, with many of them being mathematically impossible to resolve. And while the details of the events recorded in the New Testament may or may not be significant to the larger narrative, the question is begged of how we can know that the larger narrative is without error, when the details are met with so many hundreds of errors. Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Bart Ehrman, expresses the sentiment perfectly:

"If you want to know about the words and deeds of Jesus, the earliest sources are the Gospels; but these are filled -- absolutely filled -- with discrepancies, historical mistakes, errors, contradictions, stories that have been changed, re-changed and changed yet again, in the process of telling and retelling, before the Gospel writers, living forty, fifty or sixty years after Jesus’ life, were able to write them down." (Ehrman X)

Aptly, popular Christian philosopher, Dr. William Lane Craig, expresses the prevailing Evangelical stance toward these inconsistencies, when he states the following:

"...when you look at the supposed inconsistencies, what you find is that most of them—like the names and number of the women who visited the tomb—are merely apparent, not real. Moreover, the alleged inconsistencies are found in the secondary, circumstantial details of the story and have no effect at all on the [apologetic] facts as I’ve stated them." (Craig 1)

Dr. Craig’s first claim is simply not correct: the inconsistencies in the empty-tomb narrative cannot be resolved; to demonstrate this, one must simply list the sequence of events in all four Gospels, side by side, and attempt to harmonize them. Such harmonization has been attempted any number of times, with no success, and Craig’s denial of this fact exposes either his non-understanding of the situation or his dogma. Moreover, his admission that the inconsistencies are, indeed, “apparent” betrays the problem of the Bible’s ambiguity, as described already, begging the question, again, of why a benevolent god would communicate the most crucial of messages in such debatable terms.

Dr. Craig’s second claim -- that the inconsistencies in the empty tomb narrative are “secondary” and “circumstantial” -- clearly demonstrate his special pleading: he apparently believes that imperfections in a message are either marginally consequential or inconsequential. One wonders why a god is held to such a low standard. If a transmitted command to launch nuclear munitions were only ever ninety-nine percent accurate, would we rely on that command’s mode of communication? How much more suffering would be caused by the inaccurate transmission of a plan which saves sentient beings from eternal conscious torment than even the detonation of the world’s nuclear stockpile? It appears as though Dr. Craig is not only satisfied with “close enough” but expects skeptics to adopt similar satisfaction.

In the end, we are faced with not only the question of why a compassionate, intelligent god would use a medium as prone to error as human writing to intervene in the course of human events, but also of why he would then expect its readers to either accept it as authoritative, outright, or engage in years of examining it, through the lens of an ancient, dead society, in hopes of explaining away its thousands of apparent problems. While this may, indeed, be the expectation of a particular god, it is unreasonable for that god to punish countless billions of souls for finding the Bible indistinguishable from purported human inventions like the Torah, the Quran, the Vedas, the Zarathustra, the Book of Mormon and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. Once more, Dr. Bart Ehrman summarizes the situation well:

The Bible is filled with discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable contradictions. Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write the Gospels. There are other books that did not make it into the Bible that at one time or another were considered canonical—other Gospels, for example, allegedly written by Jesus’ followers Peter, Thomas, and Mary. The Exodus probably did not happen as described in the Old Testament. The conquest of the Promised Land is probably based on legend. The Gospels are at odds on numerous points and contain non-historical material. It is hard to know whether Moses ever existed and what, exactly, the historical Jesus taught. The historical narratives of the Old Testament are filled with legendary fabrications and the book of Acts in the New Testament contains historically unreliable information about the life and teachings of Paul. Many of the books of the New Testament are pseudonymous—written not by the apostles but by later writers claiming to be apostles. The list goes on." (Ehrman X)

Needless to say, whether its contradictions are real or apparent, rational scrutiny can cast considerable suspicion on the Bible’s claim of divine origin. At their very best, the books of the Bible might be regarded as a collection of questionable historical accounts, religious poems and familial genealogies, which require years of training to comprehend contextually; at their very worst, they are inchoate, self-contradictory and largely fictional. In either case, the mere existence of this spectrum of possibilities challenges the notion of the Bible’s divinity, inasmuch as one could reasonably expect any collection of books, had they been written by a god, to offer such an advanced knowledge of science, such a robust morality and such resolved internal consistency that scarcely any question of their origin could exist. Indeed, while belief in the Bible’s divine origins remains a matter faith, its own claims about the natural world are often inconsistent.
Last edited by So It Goes on Wed Dec 09, 2015 6:25 am, edited 1 time in total.

KJennings Offline
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Re: On Biblical Consistency: An Argument

Posted: Tue Dec 08, 2015 4:00 pm

I feel bad for the writing 121 professor who has to digest this one.
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So It Goes Offline
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Re: On Biblical Consistency: An Argument

Posted: Wed Dec 09, 2015 1:03 am

KJennings wrote:I feel bad for the writing 121 professor who has to digest this one.
The guy who gave me 99's on all three of the papers I've written this term? The guy who called me up in front of our class, in October, to announce that one of my papers was in the top three he's seen in his entire 14-year teaching career? Yeah, I think he'll be fine.

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Re: On Biblical Consistency: An Argument

Posted: Sat Dec 12, 2015 12:38 pm

So It Goes wrote:
KJennings wrote:I feel bad for the writing 121 professor who has to digest this one.
The guy who gave me 99's on all three of the papers I've written this term? The guy who called me up in front of our class, in October, to announce that one of my papers was in the top three he's seen in his entire 14-year teaching career? Yeah, I think he'll be fine.

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