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GOD: new evidence

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Mistakes and Contradictions?

If there are mistakes or contradictions in the Bible’s accounts of Jesus, do these mean that the accounts cannot be inspired by God? Do they mean that the Christian message is not true?

Someone commented recently:

‘If there are discrepancies because ‘eye witness account can vary,’ how can anyone claim it was ‘inspired by God’?’

Someone else said:

‘When claiming to be the infallible word of God - and my eternal existence depends on knowledge - there is no room for discrepancies.’

On the face of it, this objection seems to have a good point. Let’s look at it a bit more closely:

 

(1) A difference is not a contradiction

It is not at all clear that many of the points that people claim are contradictions really are. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke record that a group of women went to visit the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. John’s Gospel only mentions Mary Magdalene. (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1, 10; John 20:1).

Many people claim that this is a contradiction. But a difference is not a contradiction.  Complete and exhaustive reporting just is not possible.  Everyone who writes leaves out some things. People choose what to include, based on what they think is important. Other people may think that the things they left out were important. Just because they include different things, this does not mean they are contradicting each other.

It would have been a contradiction in the Gospel accounts if John had said that only Mary went to the tomb. But he did not say that. (In fact, in John’s account, when Mary comes running to tell the disciples what has happened, she says ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ It’s a tiny point of the wording, but it is a dead giveaway, if you are alert to it, that Mary was not the only person there.)

So a difference does not mean a contradiction.  Many of the supposed contradictions in the Gospels are like this.

 

(2) What if there are genuine mistakes?

Suppose that there are some genuine mistakes?  Does this mean that the accounts are historically unreliable?  Not at all. Mike Licona gives the example of the sinking of the Titanic. Some of the survivors said that the ship broke its back before it sank. Others said it went down in one piece. This is a genuine discrepancy, by eyewitnesses, who had no motive to mislead. But even allowing for this discrepancy, the Titanic still sank. The accounts are historically reliable, even though they include some mistakes or discrepancies.  And if the Gospel accounts are reliable even at this level, this means that the Christian message is true.

Reliable historical accounts can disagree with each other, and contain mistakes in the details, without being discredited.

 

(3) Wouldn’t God.... get things right?

But if the accounts are inspired by God, wouldn’t God get things right? On the face of it, this is the strongest point in the objection. But it is not as strong as it seems:

It starts out from a particular idea of what we must mean when we say that God has inspired something - an idea that owes a lot to modern, western, Enlightenment thinking. In particular, this includes the idea of being technically precise.

But what if God’s inspiration does not mean that? For example, what if it means reliably communicating the core point that the account is making, without being technically precise about all the details? 

The Christian claim about the way the Bible is inspired is different from the Muslim claim about the Qu’ran. Muslims believe that the Qu’ran was verbally dictated to Mohammed. But the Christian claim is that God worked through the personalities of the people who wrote the Bible. So, for example, their writing styles were different. Perhaps God also worked through the limitations of what they knew about geography or astronomy. Maybe he also worked with the limitations of their memories.

For example, I can remember accurately various important things that happened when our children were growing up. But I cannot remember the order in which they happened. I am quite likely to report them in the wrong order. But this does not mean that my memory of what happened is wrong.

A specific example of this in the Gospels is in the accounts of the men bringing a paralysed man to Jesus (Mark 2:1-5; Luke 5:17-20). Because the house was so crowded, they could not get to him, so they dug through the roof, and Jesus healed the man. Mark says that 'they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on.' (Mark 2:4), while Luke says that they 'lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowed.' (Luke 5:19). This looks like a mistake by Luke - he writes, based on what he knew about roofs in the Greek/Roman world, which had tiles, while actually the roof in Galilee was probably more like a thatched roof. But here is the important point: this kind of mistake (if it really is a mistake) does not suggest that the main event - the healing - did not happen. On the contrary, this kind of discrepancy is exactly what you do get in genuine and reliable historical reporting.

Minor differences like this do not contradict the historical reliability of the accounts. We can only claim that they contradict the accounts being inspired by God if we think that inspiration must fit our own particular western post-enlightenment definition.  But we cannot impose our ideas of how things ought to be on God.

So:

In the inspired and historically reliable accounts in the Bible, God has given us all we need to know in order to turn to him, trust him, and be saved. He has not told us everything else that we might like to know.

 

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