When I was 4 years old, I thought my dad was a superhero. He could do nothing wrong. Later on in life I discovered that he was indeed human – not as inerrant as I first imagined. His humanness did not deteriorate our relationship, in fact it enriched it. I discovered that I could learn as much from his mistakes as from his successes. Such a relationship in which imperfections are acknowledged requires a certain amount of vulnerability, which is exactly what gives friendship greater depth.
There was a time when my relationship with the scriptures could be described as such a infant-superhero type. The Bible was inerrant in every way … and to have discovered it to be otherwise would have destroyed my little infantile world.
At that time I enjoyed reading books and watching videos that explained away the contradictions in the Bible. There were a lot of these books and videos because there seemed to be a lot of contradictions. I gleefully smiled as the teachers made fun of the people who suggested that such contradictions existed. I was comfortable in, and determined to protect my ‘superhero’ relationship with the scriptures.
There was however a nagging question at the back of my mind: why were these explanations so numerous and so complex that no one person could ever remember them all. The logic used was often suspect and I honestly felt that I could do a better job at constructing a logical argument for some of the seeming contradiction. And so my study of the scriptures intensified. To make a better argument for its inerrancy I also had to familiarize myself with the claims of those fools who believed there were errors. Slowly but surely I began listening to the opposite side of the argument. It took a while for me to acknowledge this … but I found their arguments simply more honest.
Part of the doctrine of inerrancy is its insistence that there are no real contradictions in the scriptures, for in fact it has only one author – God – who is consistent in Himself and truthful in every statement He makes. This places a tremendous burden on the scripture, for if it contains even one error, one contradiction, one statement that can be proven to be less than God’s own infallible word, the whole doctrine would collapse.
In today’s topic we will look at one instance of contradictory scriptures.
Let’s begin with the genealogy of Jesus on his father’s side. It should be rather short because his mother was a virgin. Just as the Emperor Augustus and many of the other Caesars, it was rumored that Jesus did not have an earthly father. For some reason though both Matthew and Luke still considered it important to record the genealogy of his earthly father, Joseph. The problem however is that they present us with completely different genealogies. (When referring to Matthew or Luke, I refer to the gospels called by those names)
Please take a moment and read them here:
Luke 3: 23-38
These are two completely different genealogies. Both cannot be correct, but the doctrine of inerrancy says that both are correct so an explanation had to be found. One of the most widely accepted arguments (accepted by inerrantists) is that Mathew gives us the ‘legal’ lineage of Joseph and Luke gives us the ‘biological’ lineage of Mary, not Joseph. It would have been an interesting proposition if it was not for Luke 3:23 that explicitly states that we are dealing with Joseph’s genealogy. So the most persuasive argument for denying that there is a contradiction, is directly invalidated by the text itself.
To demonstrate this contradiction further, let me ask a simple question: according to Luke 3:23, who was Joseph’s father?
And now according to Matthew 1:16 , who was Joseph’s father?
Is this a contradiction?
Yes it is.
In addition, you would have noticed that Matthew places emphasis on the number fourteen. It has long been acknowledged that Matthew is most Jewish in its content and style. For the Jews of that time numbers had very specific meanings. For instance seven was considered the symbol for perfection. Fourteen, being seven times two, might have been considered doubly perfect. Or it might have been that the numerical value of the name David was fourteen. Whatever the reason, the writer considered it important to show that every fourteenth generation something very significant happened.
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. (Mt 1:17)
I can appreciate the author’s intention within the literary context that he functioned in. In the context of the doctrine of inerrancy, however, this presents a real problem. Why? Because we have access to the old testament manuscripts on which Matthew’s author based his calculations and from these texts we can see that he had to drop three generations between David and Babylon to get to the number fourteen. (1)
Another small problem is that the last set of fourteen generations … only contains thirteen names. An unmistakable mistake.
Presented with such seeming imperfections, one can either search and find fantastic and imaginative explanations for why it is not what it plainly seems to be – a mistake. Or one can recognize what the author intended to communicate and that these authors did not in any way try to conform their writings to our standards of perfection or the Chicago statement of inerrancy. What the author of Matthew tried to communicate with the number fourteen – that Jesus was indeed the descendant of David – was more important than getting the facts right. Personally, I have also come to acknowledge that the authors were human and therefore mistakes were made such as miscounting the names in the last set of fourteen.
This was only one example out of many thousands. The sheer numbers of such errors and contradictions speak volumes as well. There are a few other interesting differences between Matthew and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth as well.
|Bethlehem is their home town.||Nazareth is their home town.|
|Born at home – in a house.||Born in a manger while visiting Bethlehem.|
|Visited by wise men from the east.||Visited by shepherds|
|Has to flee Bethlehem and later settles in Nazareth.||Goes back home to Nazareth|
Both writers wanted to show that the birth of Jesus was in fulfillment of prophesies concerning a deliverer. Namely that Bethlehem was the town from which a deliverer would come and that a virgin would bear a child.
However, there was a problem. Everyone knew that Jesus was from Nazareth. And so Luke and Matthew found ways to locate Jesus in Bethlehem during his birth, but living in Nazareth from early childhood. Their stories are vastly different though and attempts to reconcile them always ends up in the absurd.
Why is all this important?
If the inerrancy theory is the framework with which you approach the scriptures, you could spend the rest of your life trying to reconcile contradictions and completely miss the essence of the message. Recognizing the differences is part of allowing each author to speak a unique message. Luke did not want to communicate the same message as Matthew. Can you see what happens when we recognize more than one voice in the scriptures? It is transformed from a one-dimensional instruction book, into a multi-dimensional conversation.
We have often encountered people who maintain their belief in inerrancy, theoretically, but have lost their love for the scriptures and simply don’t bother reading them any more. Compounding this problem are institutions that earn their money by functioning as giant nurseries. They have a vested interest in keeping their members in perpetual infancy. It is to their advantage to promote and maintain the infant-superhero relationship between their congregants and the Bible. To unveil what the scriptures actually are would require their members to grow up … and would make the nursery unnecessary.
Entering into a deeper friendship with the scriptures requires vulnerability. It means we need to acknowledge our own prejudices in reading them … and we need to recognize the very human element in the scriptures as well. Are we able to see the weaknesses and imperfections within another without losing respect? Could this be the very paradigm shift necessary to help enter into an altogether more honest relationship with the scriptures and therefore grasp their message more accurately?
Today we dealt with a scriptural contradiction: the difference between Luke and Matthew’s genealogies. We also looked at a straightforward factual error: claiming that there were fourteen generations between David and Babylon when in fact the source document puts the number at seventeen, and in another instance counting fourteen when in fact the list only contains thirteen names.
The conversation becomes even richer in the next article as we will consider theological differences between Biblical authors.
- 1 Chronicles 3: 10– 12 tells us that there were three generations between Joram and Uzziah. (Uzziah is called Azariah in this book – see 2 Kings 14: 21 and 2 Chronicles 26: 1.)