The Bible can be a real headache. It would be so much easier if it was written like the Qur’an—one prophet, one revelation.
But the Bible is nothing like that. It has sixty-six books and about forty authors. Men ranging from kings to shepherds, scholars to fishermen, all prophets in their own right, inspired to put quill to parchment, writing from three different continents in three different languages over two millennia.
Yet despite all the centuries and all the cultural dissonance, the book holds together, as long as you know how to read it.
Why qualify that statement? Why not just put II Timothy 3:16 on a big flag, telling the world that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”?
Well, have you read it?
Let’s start with the Old Testament: God makes light on the first day of Creation, but makes the sun on the fourth. He encourages Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, then calls the process unclean in Leviticus 12. God regrets making humans in Genesis 6:6, yet he claims to know the end from the beginning in Isaiah 46:10. God comes down from heaven to see what is happening at the tower of Babel, yet he claims to know and see everything in Jeremiah 23:24. Moses commands Israel not to kill, then Joshua leads them to war, all by the order of Yahweh. That’s just a very small sample.
What about the New Testament? Did Jesus cast a legion of demons out of one man [Mark 5] or two [Matt. 8]? Did Simon and Andrew come from Capernaum [Mark 1] or Bethsaida [John 1]? Did Jesus turn over the tables in the temple at the beginning of his ministry [John 2] or the end [Matt. 21]? Did both robbers on the crosses revile Jesus [Matt. 27] or just one [Luke 23]? Did Jesus ascend from the Mount of Olives [Acts 1] or from Bethany [Luke 24]?
How are we supposed to deal with these kinds of contradictions?
In my last post, I tried to demonstrate how Scripture shows all the earmarks of centuries of hand-copying, but the message remains consistent from beginning to end, testifying to the authority and preservation of the text. It also testifies to the relationship between the scribes and the Spirit, a relationship that can shed some light on the issue of Biblical contradictions.
Like I said before, God is not threatened by human freedom. Christians are notorious for trying to honor God by appealing to his sovereignty, though they seem to forget that being sovereign means you can do whatever you want. Apparently, God wants real relationships with his people.
Each book of the Bible shows evidence of authors writing in their own unique styles with their own agendas consistent with their own cultures and worldviews. Does this freedom strip the Bible of its authority? Can people be inspired of God and retain their personhood? Or do we really think the authors are speaking through some kind of divine mind meld?
When I teach freedom and inspiration to my college classes, I ask them to think of the Bible as the journal of a relationship between one eternal being and centuries of temporal beings. Sometimes God speaks directly to his people. Sometimes they speak to him. Sometimes people speak to one another. When it comes to Biblical interpretation, it matters who’s talking.
God to Man:
The Jews organized their Bible in a very specific way for a very specific reason. The five books of Moses were at the front. This was their greatest prophet, a man who received the Law directly from God on Mount Sinai, and continued to interact with Him in the Tent of Meeting for years afterward. Every word from Creation to Conquest is taken with a weight of authority heavier than any other Old Testament writer.
The second section of the Jewish Bible was called the Prophets. These books were written by men filled with the Holy Spirit to serve as ambassadors between heaven and earth. In the days of the monarchy they were required to record the histories of the kings, and to urge those kings to hold fast to the Mosaic Covenant. Most of their sermons started with, “Thus saith the Lord,” and ended with some pretty bad news.
In the New Testament, Jesus claimed to have come from his Father, and that he never spoke or acted on his own initiative [John 14:9-11]. To see Jesus is to see God—every word, action and emotion. There is no truer prophet in all of Scripture. Sadly, he didn’t write his own book.
The Bible ends with a revelation, a prophetic vision of John the apostle. Like some of the visions of Daniel, they are written without interpretation, just a witness and a warning.
Man to God:
Not every passage of Scripture is prophetic. Sometimes the prayers and songs of God’s people were written down to inspire and encourage the community of God. There’s a reason the Gideons added the Psalms to their New Testaments. When we read the Psalms, we share fellowship with believers of the distant past who have also reveled in the beauty of Creation, celebrated the joy of God’s provision or salvation, begged for God’s forgiveness, or asked God to take action against violence and injustice in the world.
Sure, some of the Psalms contain prophecy, but for the most part, they are an invitation for God’s people to celebrate or commiserate together, not a place to nitpick about science or theology. The same holds true for any prayer or praise in the Bible.
Man to Man:
This may be the most controversial kind of Scripture. Is an inspired book allowed to muse about spiritual things? Can the author of Ecclesiastes, for example, write about a search for truth, which he calls a “grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with” [Ecc. 1:13]? The book of Job explores why bad things happen to good people, working back and forth through the issue like a stage play. The book of Proverbs explores the practical wisdom of falling in step with the Law of Yahweh and the order of his Creation.
The Jews put their Wisdom Literature in the back of their Bibles. These books were reflective, exploring spiritual things through poetry, song, proverbs and rhetoric. The Jews would never hold these writings on an even plane with the books of Moses, though they were still included in the canon.
What about the Gospels? If each is inspired, why would God need four of them? Though none of the authors claimed to be a prophet, each wrote a Gospel for his own reason:
- Matthew wanted to show that the Messiah had come, which is why the councils put it first in the NT canon.
- Mark, one of Paul’s traveling companions, wanted to give the Gentiles a simple, straightforward account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
- Luke, a doctor and friend of Paul, claimed to have “investigated everything carefully from the beginning to write it out in consecutive order, so that you might know the exact truth.” He added sermons and parables that had not been included in the other Gospels, and continued his story through the book of Acts.
- John felt compelled to write a fourth Gospel after the first three had circulated for about thirty years. Apparently none of the others emphasized the spiritual nature of Christ to John’s satisfaction.
Does this mean that John was inspired and Luke was not? Of course not. But this kind of organic process is a testament to the nature of how the New Testament was put together. Both are valid accounts of the life of Jesus told from a different lens. I’m okay with that.
According to decades of psychological research in eyewitness testimony, the kinds of errors we see between the Gospels are typical of true events. Does this mean the Holy Spirit did not accurately remind the witnesses of what they had seen as Jesus promised [John 14:26]? I wouldn’t go that far. I still think the Bible is a fascinating case study in the balance between human freedom and divine sovereignty.
What about you? Are you threatened by a Bible that contains a combination of human and divine interaction? Do you wish the Bible was written by just one person with one, simple message?
Or are you, like me, drawn to be part of this epic, complicated story, drawn by the inspiration of the Spirit, the fellowship of the saints, and the mystery and hope of unfulfilled prophecy?