Joel points to a very cool graphic recently developed by the Reason Project which shows contradictions in the Bible (download the graphic as a PDF here). Joel also points to a couple other blogs which comment on it. As Joel and the former of the two blogs I linked to point out, it is a bit overambitious. I’d like to suggest that in that zeal they rather undermine their entire point.
I’ll start off by broadly agreeing with the Reason Project that the Bible is full of contradiction. It is a compilation of heavily edited texts written by numerous human authors from a variety of viewpoints and with a multiplicity of motivations over a very extended period of time. The creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 come from different authors and different traditions, which each align with a different account of the flood and the genealogy of the patriarchs. Jeremiah 7 states that God did not command Israel concerning sacrifices and offerings in the day that Israel was taken out of Egypt. Exodus says otherwise. Any perspective which holds to complete and utter unity from beginning to end is uninformed. Having said that, here are some concerns I have with the Reason Project’s presentation.
#7 is repeated at #9. This is not really a big deal, but it shows the editing was done rather quick and dirty. ##263/264 and 323/324 are also repeats. There are a number of spelling and typographical errors, too, like #404’s “For How much did David by the threshing floor?” These problems are easily remedied, but will the Reason Project remedy them? I’ve pointed out rather simple and clear errors in their presentations before, and the responses were, without exception, antagonistic. No changes were ever implemented. If the past is any indication, “it’s good enough” will be the response. Good enough for what? For communicating their message. The chart is about rhetoric, not about perfect accuracy. Inconsistencies will be overlooked in light of the sufficiency of the chart to get its point across. The Reason Project may prove me wrong here, but we will have to wait and see.
Next, many of the contradictions aren’t really contradictions, but unnecessarily rigid and myopic readings being juxtaposed. For instance, #218 asks “Can God stop iron chariots?” contrasting Judg 4:13–16 and Judg 1:19. The former describes Barak’s defeat of Siserah and his chariots. Judg 1:19 says that Yhwh was with Judah, so that he was able to take possession of the hill country, but Judah was unable to drive out the inhabitants of a region because they had chariots. Did the writer mean to infer that Yhwh was unable to defeat the chariots, or did the writer simply attribute Judah’s victory to Yhwh’s aid without consciously extending the concept of Yhwh’s aid over his defeat? It seems to me the person responsible for including this contradiction knew it was fudging a bit, but decided it was “good enough.”
In #133 the chart suggests Luke’s claim in Acts 1:1–2 to have told Theophilus all that Jesus did and taught is contradicted by John 21:25’s statement that the world could not contain the books which would have to be written to contain all Jesus’ acts. This is an incredibly myopic reading of Luke’s use of the word “all.” The author did not use the term “all” in its narrowest sense, just like he did not use the term “every” in its narrowest sense in Acts 2:5 when he said there were devout Jews from “every nation under heaven” living in Jerusalem. Obviously his use of “all” must be qualified in Acts 2:12 where he states, “all were amazed and perplexed,” but in the next verse states, “but others sneered.” The Reason Project is unwilling to let the biblical text function as it was written, as literature and not strict and unrhetorical history. It may only function within the rhetorical framework of their antagonism. Ironically, the Reason Project is likely to defend the chart as accurate enough to get the point across. It’s rhetoric eclipses its inaccuracy. The same courtesy will not be extended to ancient authors.
#304 asks, “Who owns the earth?” contrasting texts which state God owns the earth with Matt 4:8–9; Luke 4:5–6; and Ps 115:16 (N.B. the chart relies on an old and mistaken reading of Gen 14:19, 22). The two NT texts reference Satan’s proposal to deliver to Christ all the kingdoms of the earth. I don’t find these particularly relevant, since we would have to accept that “earth” refers in each occurrence cited to the geographical, demographic, and political entities within it. Additionally, it presumes that the author is presenting Satan as telling the truth. The verse from the psalm states that Yhwh has given the earth to human beings. The chart must understand this to mean a legal transferal of ownership. If the psalm is speaking of the delivery of a stewardship, the contradiction falls apart. Again, the chart imposes a very restrictive and intentional lens on these texts and blames the text when the carefully determined semantic ranges don’t fully overlap.
Elsewhere the chart determines contradictions based on an exclusively fundamentalist view of scripture. #359 asks, “Is all scripture inspired by God?” and then cites 2 Tim 3:16 against 1 Cor 7:12, 25. The contradictions rests upon the identification of 1 Cor 7:12, 25 as scripture, but did the author identify it as such? No, he did not. Paul was not talking about his epistles in 2 Timothy 3. The chart thus finds the contradiction not in the Bible, but in its modern interpretive framework. What then is the chart criticizing?
In the end, the point of creating this chart is to provide an overwhelming and visually striking number of contradictions, whether or not each contradiction can be adequately defended. It is the confluence of contradictions that is the message, not the individual ones. This rhetoric sounds an awful lot like traditional Christian description of the single message which arises from the confluence of ideologies in the Bible. The Reason Project wants to paint a picture, and the problematic minutiae of its composition will be overlooked as long as the final product communicates the message effectively. It obviously succeeds, as pointed out by one of the blog posts Joel linked to:
Some of the contradictions are less “contradictions” and more or less a misunderstanding of the biblical text. But of course, when you’re trying to inspire skepticism, “understanding the text” as well as the point of the biblical literature isn’t what’s important. Pointing out apparent “fallacies” works if you’re simply trying to… 1) Preach to the “choir” (albeit an atheist choir) or 2) Discredit scripture.
The authors of this chart and many of those who read it are aware of the rhetorical nature of the chart, but ignore the rhetorical nature of the biblical texts. Why? Because modern fundamentalists present the Bible as literature which cannot be evaluated as rhetoric. This chart fails to evaluate the Bible on its own terms, and instead evaluates it on the terms it’s set for its battle against Christian fundamentalism, which is its real target.