Many Christians trouble themselves over whether the bible, the book they rely on for so much of their understanding of both the physical and spiritual the world, is perfect and the writing of god, or whether it is flawed and the writing of fallible men. On the surface of it, as an outsider, this might seem like a trivial question, but for them it is deeply intertwined with their own understanding of their place in the cosmos. Sometimes the best answer they have is to split the bible into two, and pretend the errors are isolated to the Old Testament. The New Testament supersedes the old, they sometimes explain, just like Windows 10 is better than Windows 8. They will hold this position until they wish to deny gay people marriage or to condemn a neighbour for adultery; then they scramble back to the Old Testament’s bigotry and hate. The most recent discussion I had on this topic was informative in terms of the way many Christians deal with this conundrum of a perfect or flawed bible. As well, notastampcollector’s video featuring a Christian game show would provide a comical version of those inconsistencies if they were not so weighted with the Christian ego, fear, hatred, and, unfortunately, dissembling.
To begin, we should examine the implications of the two positions. If the bible was perfect and the direct word of god merely dictated through human scribes, then it would contain no flaws or human imperfections. It would not be an artifact of the dim past blindly detailing the bigotry and evil of the times, but rather it would be a guide to how a Christian and, according to them, all people should live their life. A perfect bible can, and should be followed absolutely to the letter—or if you make a claim that the sections not amendable to reason are metaphorical—then followed to the spirit of its words. The advocates of the perfect bible have put themselves into a very difficult position. As any Persian rug maker knows, perfection is a high standard to meet, and for those who claim the bible contains no errors, they need to spend more time than is wise defending portions of the bible that were better not read at all. Even one error overturns their position, so they are rightly frantic in their defense of their book.
The position that the bible is a document written by people, largely by men, and yet possibly displaying some of the spirit of god’s original intention is much easier to maintain, although it comes with its own problems. For instance, if the bible contains errors, why should a modern Christian follow it at all? Should they, like so many do, cherry pick what rules they want to follow, “Keep the Sabbath” but ignore that the Sabbath was a Saturday? http://www.sabbathtruth.com calls this “one of the most disturbing religious questions among thinking Christians today” Should they kill their children if they turn to another religion, or come out as gay, but ignore the rule if they mix different types of food or fabric? Bereft of the book that delivers sensical and absolute laws, the Christian of the historical bible is left trying to interpret the book themselves. They struggle to discern the difference between the historical and the metaphorical, trying to reconcile someone’s mistaken interpretation of an event from the possibility that the event never occurred.
Others choose to read the findings of legitimate biblical scholars who scour the Roman records for mention of a historical Jesus, and who, facing down the fantastical with academic rigour, dismiss the deluge or the genocide at Sodom and Gomorrah as metaphorical or based on local and only partially understood natural phenomenon. Many biblical scholars meticulously examine the ancient text, and its various translations, and rely on the scientific process of peer review to provide them with a venue to test their theories and historical facts. Unfortunately for the devout, following those scholars means throwing many of the more interesting accounts in the bible, such as Ezekiel’s mad ranting and the Book of Revelations’ numerology into the dustbin of history. Also, one who is interested in biblical history will sooner or later end up at the first Council at Nicaea in 325 AD, where the present form of the bible, and Jesus, was decided upon by the church fathers of the time. Such an investigation, fairly enough, might lead the Christian astray, as they begin to wonder where the truth might lie amongst the debris of story and conjecture.
I had occasion to probe this question with my friends’ family. The three daughters were of different ages and dispositions, so that may explain their different reactions to my assertions, and this anecdote is certainly not meant to do more than show the possibility of other positions on the dilemma of a true or untrue bible.
The middle daughter told me the bible was perfect and that was what originally alerted my attention. All three have been raised extremely devoutly so that they have very few friends or activities that do not take place in or around church activities and, in fact, are always associated with the same church. Their middle school education was limited in a bible school setting where they were taught primarily the American curriculum, since Canadian Christian school textbooks are difficult to find. There, certain scientific verities, such as the theory of evolution, were dismissed as nonsense in favour of the more biblical version of genesis. Surrounded by a chorus of mutually affirming voices, it is no wonder that the daughter would make such a statement.
I first asked her if she were serious. She was. Then, I told her that her statement meant there could be no errors in the bible. She concurred. “But what if there are errors?” I asked her.
“There aren’t any,” she assured me. Having established her premise, I turned to google and typed “errors in the bible.” The content errors of the bible are so well-established that such searches do not need to be refined.
When I found a likely site within moments, I pointed out the long list of links to her. She said, “Anyone can make a website. They don’t mean anything.”
“That could be true, but it’s funny that you know already without even clicking on a single link or knowing the site.” The most dangerous tendency of the fanatic is the belief that they are correct without even the suggestion that they should check the evidence.
I choose a link at random in a list of hundreds, and it listed the two bible verses which gave the father of a biblical figure as two different names. While she told me that was only one instance, the youngest daughter ran for her bible in order to check the quotes. Maybe she will be the scientist. The oldest daughter was present through this discussion, but she had learned to avoid my evil ways and completely ignored the debate; her mind was already closed to the idea. When the biblical passages had been examined by the youngest, we checked another passage. The website was very good about giving the specific chapters and verse and the errors were soon obvious. It is worth going to such a site, like http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/index.htm for its extremely detailed biblical rebuttals. It was at this point that the middle daughter chose a different tactic. She said, “Well the bible was written by people so they made mistakes.”
That’s when we came to the crux of the problem. If the bible is fallible, then her original premise—which is earth shattering in its implications—is wrong. Therefore, she has learned—and it’s worthwhile remembering that many churches give lessons on how to handle atheists—to move the goal posts. In this case, the answer sounded like absolute bollocks, however, coming as it did so quickly on the heels of her original assertion. “You can’t have it both ways,” I explained. “Either the bible is perfect and directly from god, and therefore is infallible, or it is slapped together from dozens of half understood stories and historical accounts, in which case you are justified in ignoring great swaths of it.”
She told me she still believed it and we let the discussion lapse in favour of amicability. That she would change her beliefs once she knew her premise was faulty was expecting rather much, considering the facts were tangling with an entire lifetime of indoctrination, but I would have wished for more than such intellectual dishonesty. She was young, however, and no doubt has either come up with a better defense, or put it from her mind altogether.
Notastampcollector has put a video together on YouTube about these very inconsistences. His rather comical YouTube name has its origin in a Christian assertion that atheism is a religion. However, being an atheist is the opposite of a theist, and Notastampcollector says that “If atheism is a ‘religion’, then Not Collecting Stamps is a ‘hobby.’” In one of his more interesting videos—in terms of what we are discussing—Notastampcollector has put together a “Quiz Show” where two Christian guests use their knowledge of the bible to answer particular questions. Fortunately for the contestants, all of the questions asked have at least two mutually exclusive answers and they both do rather well even though they contradict one another. Instead of leaving the sour grapes of his audience to fester in their belief that he doesn’t understand the passages that are so concerning, Notastampcollector thoughtfully gives the chapter and verse references on the screen.
If I were back in the kitchen of some four years ago, likely the oldest sister would no doubt leave the room or occupy herself with Facebook on her phone, while the middle sister, so firm in her belief that she need not appeal to reason, would say the bible is perfect and flawed, although not at the same time. The youngest child of my friends might pause the video and follow along if she wished, although now that she is older she might be less inclined to question what she’s been told.
Caught between the antipodes of religious thought, with many millions on both sides of a mutually exclusive fence, Christians struggle with truth every bit as much as the rest of us. While we have the tools of scientific inquiry at our side, however, they are intentionally bereft of even that small comfort. Having binned the scientific method for the sake of faith, and yet having to maintain a presence in the phenomenological world, they teeter from absolute statements to provisional excuses. We must remember that such a life is not easy and if they require their faith to negotiate it, then we must allow them that every bit as much as we would tend to the healing of someone suffering from a dread disease. As the Christians say, hate the sin and not the sinner.