Recently I came across this wonderfully interactive and thought provoking graph, which charts all of the Bible’s contradictions.
Simply hover over a line (there are a lot of lines) and it will show you the idea/command in question and the relevant passages at odds with one another.
Personally, I really like this. I appreciate someone with the time and a mathematical acumen bringing it together. This graph doesn’t need to subvert our faith; it need not send us out into the cold lonely wilderness. What it does is call us to look at what scripture is, and what was the purpose of its construction.
I’ve included four short, more specific thoughts below, but to begin I simply want to state a thought on scripture and why contradiction (actual or admitted) is perhaps not the problem we think it is…
Scripture, for me, was never written or preserved to provide an “accurate” historical or scientific account of what has gone. It is the collected attempts of a people to understand the world they encounter, the history they know, the stories they hear, and the future they dream of through a distinctly theological lens. It is an attempt by different communities in different times to chart attempts to know and relate to God. Its primary aim is consistently theological – creating, through various forms and means, a framework for relation with and understanding of the Divine.
Thereby contradiction or conflict is less surprising… as the factors change, as the needs of the community change, and as the knowledge of the world is supplemented by other disciplines, so too the theology (the thoughts on God and how people live in response to that) changes.
Check out this paper (especially number 6) for more... I'm trying to not sound too BuzzFeedie right now.
So here are some thoughts on the coherence (or lack thereof) and contradiction in Scripture.
When thinking of the coherence of the Bible, one cannot ignore the contradiction and conflict between different books of scripture; see the graph!
Further consideration of Scripture leads to greater awareness of the texts as communal.
The content of these various books developed out of tradition and experience, through the lens of the present circumstance, with an immediate purpose to respond to in the present and with a hopeful eye to guide the future.
Because of this it seems fitting that there would be an evolution within the grand narrative. As times change so do people, so do needs, so does the socio-political climate. The assertion that this canon holds greater significance than other texts, speaks to a belief that the words held within have the life or power to evolve to remain responsive, relevant, and true.
On the history of then and theology of now
Consider the accounts of King Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-18 and 2 Chronicles 33:1-20). A question emerging from these competing accounts is “How much biblical history is determined by the events of the past and how much by the events (and theology) of the time of the biblical authors and editors?” My thought is far more the latter.
I think we see that the differences between Kings and Chronicles is dependent on the change in times or events (in exile compared to post exile) and a change in theology (inter-generational compared to immediate justice). If the primary purpose of the Biblical texts was to present the events of the past as they happened we would not see such discrepancies; they could have been edited during canonisation. Whereas what continues to be seen, is that the determining factor and purpose of these texts is to understand the events of the past (or the stories of other nations, or the puzzling nature of the present) through the lens of the author’s theology and circumstances.
On the beginning of historicity
A question often posed by those with a literal view of Genesis (especially creation) to those who see it in a different light, is ‘if not the beginning then where does it become history?’ The in built assumption of such a question is that if we grant that some of the early parts of scripture are not historical, at what point does scripture shift into history. Is it Abram? Exodus? Surely there was a Moses? The idea that there is a point in the Hebrew Bible where it suddenly becomes and remains ‘history’ (in a modern sense) has undergone a radical challenge throughout church history. Brueggemann in his works on 1&2 Samuel shows that even our records of David are “historically rooted memory…[which] has been greatly enhanced through artistic imagination” (An Introduction to the Old Testament). One sees how Origen’s idea of the weaving of impossibility with history throughout scripture is a more tenable position than a clear ‘start point’ of historicity.
On Covenant Theology
Beyond history and commandments, when we look at the different types of covenants that appear throughout the Hebrew Bible it becomes difficult to speak of even a singular covenant theology. There are differences with who YHWH makes the covenant: all people and creatures (as in Gen 9), all people (Exod 19), or just the leaders of the nations (Jer 31). There are differences in whether a covenant can be broken (Gen 9, Lev 26 compared to Exod 19), or what the punishment would be if broken. There are different perspectives on the conditions under which a new covenant will come and how it will manifest (Jer 31 compared to Deut 30). We see that these differences; particularly in the breaking of covenants and the degree of punishment; tie into the earlier lessons on Kings and Chronicles and the way King Manasseh and the subsequent exile portrayed. Again suggesting a contest of theological understandings at play throughout the Hebrew Bible evolving through the key historical periods of pre-exile, exile, and post-exile.
I believe all this makes the prospect of reading scripture all the more exciting! I also believe this is where scripture earns its moniker “Inspired” – for the simple fact that such a broad collection of communal and individual thoughts on loving God and loving others has formed communities; bringing life to so many people, from so many Peoples, for so many years.