by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
After 2000 years of Christianity, the idea that the Bible is incapable of being wrong first developed among Protestants about 100 years ago. http://j.mp/1oCQrA0 But it is a mistake to view each and every detail of the Bible as inerrant. Anyone who holds this belief can’t possibly be correct since the Bible is so self-contradictory.
Do you want some examples? Try taking this New Testament biblical quiz:
It is a very humbling experience.
The Bible may be the inspired word of God, but it certainly was not written in a day. It was drafted over more than a thousand years. The New Testament was likewise drafted over the course of nearly 200 years, starting about 50 years after Jesus’ death. It was written by mostly anonymous authors in various locations, none of whom were eye witnesses to the events in Jesus’ life.
If you wanted to read the New Testament in the order it was written, you would have to start with the letters of Paul, probably beginning with Thessalonians. The remarkable aspects of these earliest writings of Paul is that he never quotes Jesus nor provides any biographical information about him. This couldn’t have been because the words of Jesus were well documented, since these were literally the first documents written.
The first Gospel of the New Testament was the book of Mark, written some 20 years after Paul’s letters. This was the first draft of the life, times and sayings of Jesus. Some scholars believe that Mark served as a template for the later works. Written 70 plus years after Jesus’ death, the author of this Gospel is unknown. It has the fewest biographical details about Jesus and the least amount of red ink (direct Jesus quotes). This account begins with John the Baptist at the start of Jesus’ ministry. It tells us that his family thought he was out of his mind while others thought he was possessed by the devil. It ends with his crucifixion, resurrection and being “taken up into heaven”. In addition to having fewer details than subsequent accounts, it also has certain details that are missing in later Gospels. For example, Mark very specifically states that the cross of Jesus was carried by another person.
“A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
In the other Gospels, Jesus carried his own cross, falling down several times under the burden, etc. The point here being that details are fluid and sometimes contradictory, as would be expected given the generations over which the New Testaments were written.
The Gospel of Matthew is believed to have been written sometime between 80 and 90 years after Jesus’ death. It was later named after Matthew, who was certainly not alive to write this text. And then, surprise, the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John followed, probably in that order, but who knows exactly? The last of the four Gospel’s was the book of Luke. It may have been written as late as 120 years after Jesus died.
The last book written in the New Testament is 2 Peter, believed to have been written between 150 and 200 CE.
Of course there were very many other scriptures and texts written during the first and second century about Jesus and the early Christian church. The task of sorting all this out to come up with a single version of the New Testament began in earnest in the 4th Century, concluding around the middle of the 7th Century. However, even today there remains differences in what constitutes the Holy Bible. For example, the Old Testament Book of Wisdom is included in the Catholic bibles but not the Protestant bibles. Most Christian fundamentalists today rely on the Protestant version for their sources. They do not accept the Book of Wisdom, for example. Add to this the fact that every different translations leads to different interpretations.
I believe it is fair to say the New Testament was written by many people over a number of generations and refined into the several versions we have today over the course of many centuries. It was not created in a day. It evolved, just as the Christian understanding of its means, and the Christian experience have evolved over time. The Catholic Church today certainly doesn’t act on many of the beliefs it held in the 13th or 14th Centuries. Over the millennium many different sects and permutations of Christianity formed and dissolved. Each group has pulled from different details, translations or interpretations to create unique constructs, and each in turn have been challenged or even attacked by other Christian groups doing the same. In this way, what it means to be Christian has evolved, and it will continue to do so in the future.
There is plenty of room for doubt when interpreting bible passages. In fact, there is plenty of room to doubt the legitimacy of the whole Christian faith if you are inclined to do so. The existence of God, after all, cannot be proven or disproven. This is what distinguishes faith and knowledge.
But the leap from faith to a fundamentalist dogma that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is another matter. Religious faith need not require the rejection of reason nor intellect. Belief in what is, or can be known, and faith in what we cannot know, are not mutually exclusive until we cross the line into religious fanaticism. Religious fanatics reject empirical facts that contradict any of their religious claims. The rejection of empirical reality is, in fact, what defines fanatic beliefs. In this regard all religious fanatics are alike. They require a fidelity to tenants of faith that directly contradict the natural world of the Creator God they worship.
In the long arch of history, those who reject the evolution of Christian faith, those who try to deconstruct our present knowledge or force conformity to an unsustainable Christian understanding will ultimate fail. The only question is what damage will they do along the way. Who will suffer and for how long before the latest versions of religious fanaticism become extinct.