Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An Argument Against Biblical Inerrancy

Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists frequently assert that the Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God. All that humanity needs to understand the meaning of life is contained in this book, handed down by God through people chosen specifically by him for this purpose. Aside from the obvious problem of free will that such a claim implies, it is also an assertion that is completely unsupported by a critical look at the biblical texts themselves. In this essay, I intend to illustrate one example that I believe justifiably tears down any arguments of biblical inerrancy.

The book of 1 Corinthians is a New Testament letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church he had founded in Corinth. In this letter, Paul reminds his congregation of the central claim of his theology, the event that “started it all,” as it were, for Paul’s own conversion and his life’s work as a Christian missionary to non-Jews. This event, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul states the following:

“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.”

Now, at first look, many people may wonder just what it is about this passage that could offer proof of the Bible’s fallibility. It is, after all, simply asserting the central claim of Christianity – that Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and later appeared to his followers. But it’s the very last phrase of the passage that serves to tear down inerrancy arguments: “and then to the twelve.”

The Gospels of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all independently attest to the fact that Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, betrayed Jesus to Roman authorities. Following the betrayal, Judas disappears from two of the Gospels, but Matthew’s Gospels asserts that Judas was so torn with guilt that he committed suicide. Additionally, the book of Acts – which was written as a second volume to the Gospel of Luke – states that Judas later died after an accidental fall (which, of course, is yet another example of biblical fallibility, but that’s for a different essay).

Following Judas’s departure from the story, three of the Gospels describe appearances that the resurrected Jesus made to the eleven remaining disciples (Mark’s Gospel ends after Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty – no resurrection appearances are described).

Considering these things, the discrepancy in Paul’s statement about Jesus appearing “to the twelve” should be apparent: the Gospel stories – written several decades or more after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – agree that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were to the eleven; Paul, on the other hand, says Jesus appeared to “the twelve.”

Two assumptions must arise from this problem: either Paul had never heard of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and knew nothing about Judas’ alienation from the rest of the group, or Paul simply made a mistake.

Regarding the former, it seems highly unlikely that Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles, could have been ignorant of Judas’ betrayal. This leads one to question whether the Judas story was a legend that developed later in Christian history, after Paul’s death. Of course, this one innocuous piece of evidence is not enough to legitimately suggest that the Judas story is mythological, but it does cast a shadow of doubt on the story’s authenticity.

If you reject the idea that the Judas story was mythological – which, if you are a Bible literalist, you would have to do by definition – then you must either make the unlikely assumption that Paul had never heard the story, or you must accept that Paul made an error.

Either way, this otherwise insignificant comment by Paul stands as evidence of an irreconcilable error. If Paul had never heard of the betrayal story, then clearly God was lax in imparting the necessary knowledge to his chosen apostle to the Gentiles, such that he allowed Paul to make an erroneous statement. If Paul did know about the betrayal story, but simply had the 1st century equivalent of a brain fart, then it stands as evidence that the writers of the New Testament – including, no less, the most important writer of the New Testament – were, in fact, human, with human frailties, failures, and fallibilities.

One argument that literalists put forth, when faced with this question, is that Paul’s “twelve” included the “replacement” disciple, Matthias. In the opening chapter of Acts, the writer explains that the eleven remaining disciples elected a replacement for Judas, an otherwise unknown man named Matthias. The problem with this assumption is that the writer of Acts makes it clear that Matthias was not elected by the eleven until after they had witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The writer tells us that, following Jesus’ final appearance and his ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and Peter suggested electing a replacement disciple. So Paul’s assertion that the resurrected Jesus appeared “to the twelve” could not include the replacement disciple.

No matter how you slice it, Paul’s assertion that Jesus appeared “to the twelve” is an irreconcilable error. Whether it was Paul or later New Testament writers, somebody messed up somewhere. It cannot be both ways; Judas cannot have been present and not present at the same time. Either he was there or he was not there.

Of course, in the whole scheme of Paul’s writings, and in the whole scheme of Christian theology, this issue is rather insignificant – indeed, it doesn’t really matter at all; that is, it doesn’t really matter if you are not a Bible literalist or one who claims that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. But if you do make such claims, as so many fundamentalists and evangelicals do, then you have a real problem on your hands when you confront this passage.

In my experience, anyone who claims that the Bible is infallible has simply never read the Bible, at least not critically.


Anonymous said...

In its context, in the original language "and then to the twelve" literally means -- in the plain sense -- the disciples.

It’s called a figure of speech, and has no bearing on the inerrancy of Scripture.

The inerrant view of Scripture does not mean that it precludes using language elements like figures of speech.


Scott said...

Anon: Thanks for reading and posting. We'll have to agree to disagree that "and then to the twelve" was a figure of speech.

I could just as easily argue that the resurrection language is a figure of speech for spiritual awakening too, if we're going in that direction.

Papa Smurf said...

Excellent...as ALWAYS!

Paul in another passage...don't have it in front of me right now....admits that he is the fallible writer of the letters. He says (paraphrase), "this is from God". Then later, about a different passage he says, in effect..."This is Paul speaking". If God was moving Paul's hands and writing tools to state EXACTLY what he wanted him to write, then this admission of his own "humanity" would not have been necessary. Further, God could have just picked up the "quill" herself.

Scott said...

That's an interesting point, PS. Never really considered that passage from that angle before. You're exactly right, of course.

Anonymous said...

This passage where Paul "sets the record straight" concerning who is "talking here" points out the utter rididulous nature of the "Robot Theory or Mechanical Theory of Inspiration"; the Theory that God moved over the writer, taking his hand and his writing implement under Her complete control, inscribing exactly point for point, word for word what She wanted the writer to write. The inerrantist have this concept, even when they don't realize it and it is absurd, like much of their other "theology". They continually create God in THEIR own image. The God(s) of the Bible has(ve) little to NO resemblance to the one they've created.

TRUTH has never been their goal in life. Only power through indoctrination. As a very committed SBC former pastor said in my hearing a number of years ago while speaking to the youth of the church, "Shoot your arrow toward TRUTH, not ORTHODOXY! They are seldom the same thing!" I never heard more honest words spoken from a pulpit.

Hauser & San Vicente said...

There is a better argument against biblical inerrancy. In Genesis 1:25-27, God first creates animals, then man. In Genesis 2:18-24, God first creates man and then, in an effort to make a suitable partner for man, creates the animals. People who believe in the literal truth of the Bible haven't even read the first two pages!

Anonymous said...

In fact, there are enormous numbers of places where such contradictions exist in the Bible. Those who want to claim "inerrancy" for the Bible are in fact nothing more than DISHONEST! But that has never stopped them from promulgating their self-made lies.

Scott said...

Yeah, there are literally dozens of places like that where direct contradictions can be pointed out. The two Genesis creation stories are another prime example.

For me, the existence of contradictions doesn't mean the Bible is valueless, it just means that it was written by human beings who are fallible. It also shows (in cases like the creation accounts) that the Bible has multiple layers of tradition superimposed and fused together.

Anyone who claims that the Bible is infallible has probably not read much of it.

Ruth Camburn. said...

I was researching Biblical Inerrancy for a project and came across this post. I noticed someone commented about the discrepancies between Genesis 1 and 2. Perhaps this will help: http://www.tektonics.org/jedp/creationtwo.html.

One thing that is important to remember in regards to Biblical analysis, especially on such a detailed level as described in this post, is that it was not originally written in English. When anything is translated from one language to another, the meaning can tend to change just a little. For example, in Chinese the word "ma fan" is difficult to translate into English because of all the different usages and meanings it has. So generally it is said to mean "troublesome." However, it has more to it than just that one English word. It is an idea in my mind that is difficult to sum up in one English word. Does that make the translation of "troublesome" wrong? No. It is just limited. That is why there are so many different translations of the Bible. Different people find a different way to translate the ideas from the Greek and Hebrew into English. So, in closing, I would just caution all of you to be careful about dealing with a translation. Get into the original language and find out what is really being said. English semantics is a difficult and rocky terrain even for native English speakers. Don't judge too harshly.

Scott said...

Thanks for commenting, Ruth. I agree about how philology and linguistics are frequently overlooked in these discussions.

In my own independent research, I follow the original Greek of the New Testament, for which I have a toolbar link right on my web browser.

Anonymous said...

Was researching arguments for and against inerrancy and came across this post. While I do believe that there are many solid arguments against the doctrine of inerrancy, I don't necessarily believe this is one. The apostles were convinced that there should be 12 apostles, even after the betrayal and death of Judas. They take a vote and nominate a replacement in Acts. (Acts 1;15-17, 20-22)It would be completely logical, and even expected, for the individual who replaced Judas to be present when Jesus made his post-resurrection appearances. The idea of "the 12" stayed intact even after Judas made his exit.

Scott said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Anon, and for reading the post.

The argument I would make against your assertion is simply that Acts tells us explicitly that the replacement disciple - Mattias - was not elected until after the resurrected Jesus had ascended into heaven - thus ending his resurrection appearances.

Therefore, Mattias can't have been present for any resurrection appearances as part of the 12. Furthermore, remember that the gospels all universally agree that the resurrection appearances involved the "11," not the "12."

hensonator said...

Could it be that Jesus appeared to Judas as "one of the twelve" causing him to hang himself, and then his body having fallen and split open?

Having seen Jesus risen from the grave after betraying him could have caused Judas (or anyone for that matter) to hang himself as a result of guilt and remorse.

Matthew is written not chronologically but thematically, so to read the book as if it were written chronologically could be misleading.

Scott said...

It's true that the gospels don't necessarily depict a chronological view of Jesus's life. However, in the case of the Judas stories, the narratives are pretty explicit.

Matthew tells us Judas hung himself after Jesus was arrested. This happens explicitly while Jesus is being interrogated by Pilate. See Matthew 27: "Early in the morning," Judas is filled with remorse and then goes out to hang himself. "Meanwhile," Jesus is with Pilate. Those are Matthew's narrative words, implying very strongly that he intends his readers to understand that Judas is now dead.

Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion!

Anonymous said...

Could it not be, though Mattias was not a disciple yet, that he could have been there. He saw Jesus ascend and then Paul would still be speaking truth?

Scott said...

Thanks for the question, Anonymous. There are a couple of problems to be faced with your suggestion.

To begin with, it seems a bit like trying to connect dots that simply aren't there. Paul's passage is very straightforward. He says Jesus died, was buried, rose on the third day, then appeared to Peter, then to the 12, and later to more than 500 people at once. It is abundantly clear what Paul means by "the 12." He differentiates those 12 men from everyone else because they were a known and recognized group - the inner circle of Jesus' disciples.

To make mental stretches by supposing that maybe he was thinking of Mattias because Mattias was there, but hadn't been elected yet, but would later be elected, and thus become one of the 12.....Well, it seems like mental gymnastics.

The second problem is Luke's corresponding words in the book of Acts. He tells us that the remaining disciples (the 11) saw Jesus a final time, then Jesus went up into heaven. After Jesus disappeared, two angels come and speak with them. Then, the 11 walk from the Mount of Olives back into Jerusalem and go up into a room where they have been staying. Luke, at this point, tells us explicitly who was there - he names each of the 11 remaining disciples.

THEN, after an uncertain period of time ("in those days"), they decide to elect a replacement and choose Mattias.

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