A wise man once told me that respecting the Bible isn’t about conforming it to myself or something else, but discovering what it is, as it is, and conforming myself to it.
I believed in taking the Bible at face value, but it wasn’t always clear what that meant. I wondered if the book of Job was presented as an epic parable, and this was not a demotion of the text by any means. Trying to identify the genre the author intended, if done right, can only elevate understanding.
I devoured books by Kenneth Bailey, especially Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. Bailey was a Bible scholar who lived 40 years in parts of the world with a culture more similar to Jesus’, and his knowledge of cultural expectations and paragraph structures helped me understand Jesus’ parables.
As you may have picked up from previous posts in the series, all the articles and sermons I listened to, and all the Bible discussions I had with other Christians had an assumption in the background: If properly understood, the Bible would reveal one consistent theology, history, and message. So if one person says “hey, these passages say this,” and another person says, “all these clearer passages reveal something else,” it went without saying, God meant to convey the second one, and that was a good way to debate the point.
The notion that conversations like these may have revealed a genuine difference of ideas within the pages of the Bible did not occur to me until after I stopped believing. My encouragement to Christians today, is the next time you hear a debate on an important theological topic, consider the possibility that both sides understand some of their main verses correctly and that their positions both exist in the Bible. This shouldn’t be the first or only possibility considered, but it should be on the table in case it turns out to be true.
Even if it turns out to be consistent after all, an approach to the Bible, or any book, that is overly eager to harmonize could cause readers to miss out on what each part is saying. More on that later in this post.
This was definitely not my approach to the Bible though. The consistent Bible was the foundation for my beliefs, it was God revealing things about Himself to humanity, so how could it have different beliefs inside of it? If a Biblical Worldview was important to recognizing God’s authority and wisdom, then underneath that is the notion that a Biblical Worldview exists to be discovered.
RC Sproul put it this way in a short dialogue on the different-but-similar issue of inerrancy:
If Christ is your Lord, aren’t you saying He has sovereign authority over you?” “Yeah,” he said.
I probed a little deeper, “How does Christ exercise that sovereignty over you? How do you get your marching orders from Him?
In Part 3, I talked about how I let go of the idea that I could get better at Hearing God’s Voice, so the Bible became the only place I had a hope of figuring out what God wants.
I had trained myself to handle the Bible in such a way that, if any person of any religion handled their text the same, they’d never be able to notice any contradictions if there were any.
The Whack-a-mole Objections Game
If a critic of the Bible had contradictions or issues to deal with, they were welcome to bring it on because with 2000 years of Christian defenses at my fingertips guess who’s going to win? The moment I thought I understood what the challenge was, the logic gears started turning, my fingers a-googling, and it felt like a game of whack-a-mole. Solved, next! Answering challenges to the Bible is the fun part of apologetics, and even to this day I feel those impulses when someone challenges it. I’m grateful to have those habits still working, because when someone is overly eager to find problems in the Bible, they often find problems that aren’t really there.
GIF of cat bopping fingers that appear through holes in a box, simulating an arcade game where robot moles pop up out of holes
In my approach, it was almost like contradictions only counted if there was no possible way to harmonize it. A very high standard indeed, but is it a good standard?
Given enough time and the dedication of invested people working on it, it’s hard to imagine ever finding any contradiction or issue in any of the world’s religions that would be impossible to solve.
On the way home from church I heard some comments from friends that were not quite 100% supportive of the Bible’s perfection so I decided to go on a quest to deal with contradictions. I came across an apparent Biblical contradiction that is not impossible to solve, but difficult enough to shake my belief in a consistent Bible. The evidence was sharp enough to pierce the veil of my assumptions.
I chose this contradiction because when I’ve shared it with Christians, it’s generally gone over well.
Judas’ Death and who bought the field
I invite you to consider what we would think about the details surrounding Judas’ death if we had only one of these passages and not the other.
15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong[d] he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
If you’d humor me, I invite you to imagine the events that are being described in Acts 1 as clearly as you can imagine it in your mind, and then go to the next quote.
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. 2 And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor.
3 Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus[a] was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. 6 But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. 8 Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, 10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
The Price of Harmonization
In Acts, Judas buys a field with his reward for betraying Jesus and falls and bursts open.
In Matthew, Judas feels guilty after betraying Jesus, changes his mind, and throws the 30 pieces of silver down in the temple and then leaves to hang himself. The priests get legal advice on what to do with blood money, and the priests buy a field as a burial place for strangers.
It’s not impossible to harmonize, but it comes at a price.
What is most vulnerable to harmonization is the unwritten impressions that one or both passages give. That is, the images the authors give you that are not explicitly stated.
Reading Acts by itself, it seems an unrepentant, field-buying Judas was surprised by an accidental death after he purchased a field. But since it doesn’t explicitly specify accident or surprise, the part of me that wants a consistent Bible asks, can we use what we know from Matthew 27 to throw that out? There, it’s gone before we even get started.
Next, apologists on the internet point out that I could combine falling/guts-bursting with hanging, which feels like a stretch, but definitely could happen together or one after the other. I could imagine an apologist staying something like, “well, it says falling headlong, but it doesn’t specify that he hit the ground right away, so perhaps Judas dramatically dove into his hanging and the force ripped his guts.” Another apologist might say, “he hang for awhile and then rotted a little, and the rope broke, then guts.”
The final, and hardest fix is regarding who bought the field and how the blood money moved. Since Matthew has details about the priests seeking legal counsel on how to use the money, the harmonizer within me is drawn to the shorter account in the book of Acts. Why? It’s easier to consider other Greek definitions and alternate manuscripts for the phrase “this man acquired a field.”
Solutions to whacking this mole are potentially endless. One way of solving it gives us something like, Judas hung himself, then the priests bought the field he hung himself in, and then the rope broke and he fell. That’s how both can be right about why it is called The Field of Blood.
So what’s the point about Judas?
You will find solutions to this problem, and every other one I will share. My point is, the solutions are the problem. They are the the sort of thing we would object to if we saw someone doing it with a similar issue in a different religion.
I offer this as a general principle, that can be applied to other, more important doctrinal issues which are sometimes less concrete, and so the rationalizations are harder to see:
When one passage is viewed in light of another with the goal of excluding conflicts, it’s likely the unexplicit, unwritten soul of one or both passages are altered or destroyed. When the passages are combined, it’s like they are sewn together in a Frankenstein monster neither author would recognize. When I took an approach like this to the Bible, I could retain my confidence that the Bible was miraculously consistent, yet I robbed myself of the opportunity to hear what each author was uniquely saying. I couldn’t accept the Bible as it is and respect it as it is, so I defined evidence for inconsistency as demonic attacks on it.
I did it because consistency was essential to my confidence that this is the book to find out what God wants. And I was in no position to loosen up on that, because I was running out of ways to have a relationship with God.
More posts coming…