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Magical Contradictions

February 28, 2011

There are a lot of lists of supposed Biblical contradictions on the internet. I’ve never been particularly impressed by these lists, many of which are clearly written by people who do not understand Biblical translation or any style of reading beyond the mechanically literal. However, one particular form of error of these lists makes its way even into some scholarly literature. This error is the obvious contradiction without special explanation.

When I say obvious contradictions I do not mean contradictions that are obvious once pointed out. Rather, I mean contradictions that do not need to be pointed out. The simplest example is that of consecutive contradictions. You read the first story or statement and it is immediately followed by a story or statement that disagrees. Now, this depends somewhat on how obviously these things disagree – stories can sometimes disagree in ways that only good readers can catch. However, if a story or statement is clear enough the two contradictory blocks of text can be pretty far apart provided most people will read both. A story somewhere in Jude and another in Zephaniah doesn’t cut it, but one in Luke and one in Romans definitely would.

Examples of very obvious contradictions would be Genesis 1:20 (in which God creates birds by speaking) and Genesis 2:19 (in which God creates the birds by forming them from dirt), John 15:15 (in which Jesus says he has told his disciples all things) and John 16:12 (in which Jesus tells his disciples he has a lot left to tell them), and Proverbs 26:5 and 26:6 (which appear to say first to answer a fool and then not to). Obviously anyone reading Genesis 1 is supposed to read Genesis 2, and, like John 15 and John 16, they’re not far enough apart for any but the seriously memory-impaired to forget the contents of the first part before running across the second. Proverbs 26:5 and 26:6 is even worse.

I should point out at this point that I’ve drawn these last two examples from a list circulated by a man who writes books against religion professionally. I’m about to demonstrate that the inclusion of these items is magical thinking and so I’d like to drive home the point that it is not magical thinking restricted to those who mostly don’t think. That said, when I was first presented with the list by this professional atheist it did not have his name attached and I dismissed it as the work of a semi-literate after cross-checking ten random examples. When I talk about reading the Bible (which is actually what I’m discussing here) I normally point out errors Christians make. A great many atheists read just as poorly as the Christians they hate, something that may provide additional motivation for Christians to learn to read better.

Let’s use the example from John as we return to the task at hand. I’ve defined the error I am discussing as “obvious contradiction without special explanation”. We’re about to get to special explanation. We’re going to do so by taking the John 15:15 and John 16:12 example and working out several options for it. The first, obviously, is that these passages do not contradict when read properly. The second and third both assume that these passages do contradict. I chose the John example because, unlike Genesis or Proverbs, I’ve never run across a scholar (Christian or not) who thinks the author of John didn’t write his own material. So let’s assume these passages contradict. This would require that John (or pseudo-John) sit down and write contradictory passages very close to one another and that he would have no problem with this. This is perhaps especially weird for John who is doing so many interesting and careful things with language – John is clearly a bright man. For other passages where authorship is less clear there is still always a final redactor – someone who puts all the material together. Again, this person must write contradictory things right next to each other and not have an issue with this.

After the author or redactor writes contradictory nonsense the book goes before the community of faith. The community of faith then has to choose to accept or reject the book. This is important: Christianity has actually done this. Unlike some modern religions which have written strange documents and presented them all at once we know that Christianity and Judaism both rejected books and discussed the inclusion of books into the canon. Perhaps some books came in blocks (we don’t know very much about the compilation of the Old Testament) but every book was examined and accepted. If we’re assuming that we have a list of obvious contradictions this means that when a book came along with nonsense in it people said, “Yup, that’s from God.” This applies to contradictions where each half is in a different book as well. As long as the contradictions are obvious someone, again, looked at the newer book and said, “Hey, this contradicts canonical book X. Let’s include it anyway.”

Finally, Christianity spread with its books. Sometimes Christianity has spread for diplomatic reasons (Christian nations might get better deals from Christian superpowers) or by the sword (Charlemagne’s “convert or die”), but mostly Christianity spread by missionaries. This means that missionaries converted people despite having ridiculous books. Now, this is the weakest filter since many converts will have been illiterate and few literate converts read the entire Bible before conversion, but it is a filter.

Here’s “special explanation”. It is simply ridiculous to think that the author of John, say, wrote something he knew to contradict what he’d written a chapter before, that this obvious nonsense then passed muster when many other books were rejected, and that a religion that carried around blatant stupidity then spread without spending any real effort justifying these nonsensical statements. You need a special explanation – for instance, you could argue that John’s Trinitarian language made it too valuable in the Arian controversy to discard from the canon even though it contains this contradiction. That would only explain why John remained in the canon in the 300s, though, and not why John wrote it that way or why anyone prior to the Arian controversy used it.

There’s one way to get around this problem: magical thinking. The more I learn about what I call the “angry atheists” (atheists whose primary method of pushing atheism is to assert that religion is horrible and to get worked up and angry about it) the more I think these people are actually a particular brand of fundamentalist Christian inverted in a few key areas. Fundamentalist Christians do not, in my experience, normally know the first thing about the formation of the canon. Instead, they have a narrative in which God more or less dictates the Bible to a few people who simply drip miracles. There’s a (magical) explanation for why John would write nonsense: God dictated it to him, and who is he to say, “Excuse me sir, that doesn’t make sense”? There’s a (magical) explanation for why the community of the faithful would accept such a book: John dripped miracles and so no one really challenged him when he said God dictated this to him (except, of course, that he didn’t bother to say that anywhere in writing – strange about that). It would be ridiculous for an atheist to accept this explanation except for one thing: the behavior of modern Christians.

The simple fact is that many modern Christians, when these contradictions are pointed out to them, will offer nonsensical defenses for them. Sometimes this is because the Christians in question have simply invested too much in the Bible to step back from it. Other times (most of the time, I think) these Christians simply don’t know how to express themselves well, or they’ve seen one of these lists torn to shreds by a decent apologist and feel pretty sure that the new list of contradictions is equally bad but don’t have the background to show why. It’s easy enough to develop an implicit rule if you’re an atheist: Christian believe any nonsense in the Bible. In fact, most Christians have run across other Christians who push some sort of nonsense because they think it’s in the Bible. The problem is that modern Christians encounter the entire Bible as take-it-or-leave-it. Ancient Christians at one point did not. Their reading, then, probably did not see these things as contradictions. If they had someone would have rejected the book or (since atheists are generally willing to assume that the Bible has been heavily edited) fixed the contradiction. (This entire attitude is probably helped along quite a bit by the vague notion many people have that ancient people were stupid. This notion is in itself pretty stupid the minute you examine the evidence.)

These contradiction lists often want to have it both ways: they want to assert that an enormous con has been pulled on religious people but that the con-men are also grossly incompetent. The sheer weirdness of claiming that one of the most successful cons in history was masterminded by morons should boggle the mind. Instead, various flavors of this claim make their way even into public claims made by incautious New Testament scholars (see, for instance, Bart Ehrman on the problem of pain). Rather than defending ourselves against these claims it seems that there is ample room to go on the intellectual offensive. The correct response to seeing someone insist that there are obvious contradictions in the Bible is to ask how they got there.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    March 3, 2011 11:22 am

    “The sheer weirdness of claiming that one of the most successful cons in history was masterminded by morons should boggle the mind.”

    I was thinking about this the other day. It also reminds me of Chesterton’s quote from ‘Orthodoxy’, about how Christianity being attacked for contradictory reasons made him think that it was either a very strange thing … or a very right thing.

    Good post.

  2. Eric permalink
    March 3, 2011 3:15 pm



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