There’s a funny thing about people who attack the Bible and those who proclaim its unquestioned authority. Both groups actually have a lot in common because they each depend on a literal reading of the text in order to make their opposing points.
Fundamentalists depend on a literal reading because their belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant word is central to their faith. There are certainly dangerous consequences to this particular type of Biblical digestion. In order to apply law that was written three or four millennia ago to contemporary life, one must choose to simply ignore the revelations of science and ignore our ever-deepening understanding of human nature.
However, humanists, atheists and those who are anti-religion commonly use the literal interpretation of the Bible in order to attack it. The result is a more accepting flavor of Christian doctrine which, I believe, is a good thing. On the other hand, this approach results in lazy rhetoric and the total dismissal of a book that has so much to offer us.
An easy Biblical attack begins with its anthropological claims that fly in the face of all human logic. There is simply no reasonable way to explain that two originating humans gave birth to three boys – Cain, Abel, and Seth – and began the entire human race. I am no expert but the only possible explanation is that Eve and her three sons would have had to been involved in a mathematically impossible amount of adulterous activity in order to populate the world. One could also focus on the fact that there are two contradicting creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. How can we take this kind of document seriously?
Interestingly, the men who were charged with compiling and editing the Hebrew scriptures thousands of years ago had every opportunity to simply correct these contradictions. It would have been as if they never existed. But, for some reason, they chose to include them. They didn’t remove one of the two creation stories for the sake of clarity because they recognized that each contains rich metaphors that shed unique light on the nature of existence.
Old Testament contradictions don’t stop in Genesis. We all know the story of David and Goliath, right? Future King boy slays giant warrior with a sling and a single stone and the ultimate underdog metaphor was born. You’ll find this story in 1 Samuel 17. Most people would be surprised to find that in 2 Samuel 21 a warrior named Elhanan is credited with killing Goliath. The translators of the King James Version modified the text to make it read as if he had slain Goliath’s brother but the Hebrew text makes no mention of the word “brother.” Elhanan forces the reader to ask tough questions — to wonder, for instance, if propaganda plays a role in the earlier text. It’s a good question, and it speaks to the wisdom of the Bible’s editors that we’re given room to ask it.
Critics of the Bible’s authenticity can dismiss the New Testament as easily as they can the Old because of inconsistencies found throughout the Gospels. But again, we must remember that church leaders who canonized the New Testament in the fourth century CE chose to keep those contradictions in play, recognizing that a single Gospel could not approach the complexity of the story being told.
For example, Matthew was written specifically with the Hebrew crowd in mind. As a result, there is much more OId Testament quoted in Matthew than the other Gospels specifically to link Old Testament prophecy with the coming of Christ. It makes sense then that Matthew begins with a genealogy that links Jesus to David, creating a genetic bridge between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. John, on the other hand, opens with the vision of a cosmic heritage that reaches back to the beginning of time — and beyond. Its opening verses could prompt a lifetime of study and meditation.
In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He existed in the beginning with God.
3 God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
4 The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.
– John 1:1-5 (NLT)
Both Old and New Testaments ask the reader to attempt that most difficult of intellectual tasks — to hold contradictory thoughts in the mind simultaneously. Their authors knew that language can only approximate the profound truths of their subject matter, that contradictions are essential to the reading experience.
Both Fundamentalists and those who discount the Bible are doing the text and themselves a disservice. We can all rise to a higher standard in Biblical exploration and our ability to benefit from it. You don’t have to believe in God to use the creation stories as the starting point for a debate on the nature of stewardship, or to use the story of the Good Samaritan as a model for how we might move through the world.
We should be willing to embrace the complexities of the Bible and struggle with the contradictions that force us to question our assumptions. We can take our lead from ancient Jewish tradition. Across generations of rabbinical studies, debate over the many meanings of a single Bible passage has been considered sacred work. We would be wise to adopt a similar attitude.