Contradictions in the Bible and Gaining Perspective

I have a diverse range of friends. Some friends are Christians. Some friends are atheists. Some friends are agnostic and some are exploring a variety of faith traditions and expressions of spirituality.

In a recent conversation with one friend – who I imagine sits somewhere between being an atheist and agnostic – he was highlighting that the oldest physical copies of manuscripts of the gospels are not that early. He was seeking to make the point that these manuscripts could have been changed or adapted and that, thus, they did not provide reliable data for finding out about Jesus.

Part of my response to my friend was to point out that the intention of the gospel writers was never to write history or biography. Preserving some reliable historical record of what happened on each day of Jesus’ public ministry was not the goal of these authors.

Instead, the gospel writers had a far more radical goal. Their goal was to give expression to their experience and utter heart conviction that in Jesus, who is given the title Christ (the Anointed), there is good news and that this good news means something for all things.

While some people have been brought up to believe that the bible has no contradictions, this is simply not true. There are many contradictions in the bible, including in the New Testament. This is because these authors were not trying to record history, they were trying to highlight who they understood Jesus to be. The fantastic thing is that each of these gospel authors (the people who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) had different understandings about how Jesus was the good news and what this meant for being followers of Jesus. We gain so much from this diversity.

One of my favourite examples of a contradiction in the New Testament is found in corresponding passages in Luke and Mark. In Luke the first disciples are called by Jesus to follow and: “They left everything and followed him” (Luke 5.11). This is a very dramatic moment in the gospel.  However, in Mark’s version of this same event, while these first disciples “leave their nets” to follow Jesus  (Mark 1.18), they then go home for tea that night and they take Jesus with them (Mark 1.29-31)!  Luke records an account of this very same dinner at Simon-Peter’s house, but locates it before the call to discipleship (Luke 4.38-41), so that in the narrative the disciples are still able to “leave everything”.

These two contradicting versions of the call to discipleship do not reveal sloppy historical journalism, what they reveal is different emphasis. It is a gift that we have access to them both, particularly as we seek to read beyond sentimental interpretations of discipleship and explore what it might actually mean for us to be followers of Jesus today.

Engaging with the bible should never be about leaving our brains at the door. We need to be able to question – and wrestle with – this glorious, contradictory text and the astonishing claims that it makes about love and mercy and meaning and who – and how – the Divine is. If a sacred text is not robust enough for questions and deep engagement it is pointless and, worse still, it becomes a weapon in the attempt to create mindless devotion and unquestioning obedience.

There are all kinds of ways of engaging more seriously with the bible. One excellent way is to find a church where the bible is take seriously, not literally (like Richmond Uniting).  Studying the biblical text and theology within an academic institution is another fantastic way to delve more deeply. The Uniting Church’s Pilgrim Theological College offers a range of units that engage seriously with the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Engaging with rigorous biblical commentaries is another way to help open the door to the complexities of sacred text. And finally, an instant way to begin to engage with the bible more seriously is to listen to some great podcasts exploring these issues. In Melbourne, a great new podcast was recently launched called By the Well.

This podcast is co-hosted by two Uniting Church Ministers Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker (who is a New Testament scholar) and Rev Fran Barber (who is the Co-ordinator of Continuing Education for Ministry in the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania). Each week a different person is invited to reflect with Fran and Robyn on the biblical readings that will be shared all around the world the following Sunday in Christian worship services. In this podcast the complexity of the biblical text is honoured and engaged with seriously and there are laughs as well. It is a great initiative and I am glad to be part of it.

Every blessing in your wrestling with sacred text, with contradictions and the search for meaning.