Mostly a Rant on Biblical Contradictions, But Also a Zombie.
July 25, 2012 2 Comments
I just wanted to point out that I added a “Contact Me” page today (you can find it using the toolbar at the top of every page on the site). I know I’ve posted my email on here before, but now it’s always in one place so you don’t have to dig through the archives for it. I’d really love to hear from you, no matter what you have to say, so please don’t hesitate to use it!
NT: Mark 5
I think we’ve just encountered the New Testament’s very first quasi-zombie.
Jesus and his posse travel across the lake, and then…this:
As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a man possessed by an evil spirit came out of the tombs. This man lived among the tombs, and no one was ever strong enough to restrain him, even with a chain. He had been secured many times with leg irons and chains, but he broke the chains and smashed the leg irons. No one was tough enough to control him. Night and day in the tombs and the hills, he would howl and cut himself with stones. (2-4)
It turns out this is actually a variation of the suicidal demon pigs story from Matthew 8, except the description above makes this one a lot more exciting. Oh, and also, there are two possessed men in the Matthew version, but only one in the Mark version. Oops! I’m sure I won’t catch nearly all of these kinds of errors because (1) I’m reading the book over the course of a year or two, and (2) I’m not an autistic savant. But if you enjoy this sort of thing, check out this infographic on contradictions within the Bible, which I have probably shared before and forgotten about because of reason 2.
Now, before you chide me for missing the forest for the trees, I want to say something about the whole issue of Bible contradictions. I’ve been in discussions in the past where I and other atheists have mentioned one Bible contradiction/error or another, and Christians have stopped us and protested that we were nitpicking, straw-manning, or otherwise arguing dishonestly because those kinds of things don’t really matter. What matters, according to this line of reasoning, is the Bible’s central message, not the extraneous details. As long as it’s consistent about God and the path to salvation, you shouldn’t be bothered by apparent inconsistencies in the number of demons Jesus cast out on a given day or exactly where he met a particular disciple and so on.
I have some serious problems with this approach to the Bible.
For one thing, for a book that is supposed to be about the forest and not the trees – if it’s all about the big picture and the details don’t matter – the Bible has got a hell of a lot of trees. I haven’t even gotten to Leviticus and Numbers yet, but I’ve heard horror stories about the pages and pages of drivel about how to spread oil on your offerings and how many people were in each tribe and so on. And Genesis was bad enough with all the begatting. If that’s all irrelevant to my salvation and I shouldn’t worry my pretty little head about it, why include it at all? Moreover, even if there was no pressing reason why all the little details of the stories in the Bible had to be correct, there certainly isn’t any good reason why so many should be wrong, is there? You’d think, when the stakes are this high, the least God could do is spring for a decent copy editor.
Second, a lot of the contradictions in the Bible do seem to matter to the big picture – that is, they change the story in significant ways that alter its overall meaning. One example of this is Judas’s death. We already read Matthew’s account of it, where Judas throws away the money he was paid for betraying Jesus, and then hangs himself. We haven’t gotten to Acts yet on this blog, but – spoiler alert – in that version, Judas uses the money to buy a field, and then falls down in his own field and his intestines spill out. A former Pentecostal Christian has explained the importance of this contradiction, and how it shook his own faith, quite well in this video. (This 10-minute video is part of a longer series on his deconversion process, but that link will take you directly to the Judas bit, which is only three minutes long.) Basically, as far as I can tell, this story is either about remorse, or greed and punishment: either Judas threw the money away (demonstrating remorse) and then hung himself (more remorse), or he used the money to buy a field (materialism, greed, non-remorse) and then was struck down by God in an explosion of intestines (punishment by God’s wrath). It seems to me that the question of whether Judas committed remorseful suicide or was executed by God is extremely relevant to the overall meaning of the story. The “big picture” changes noticeably when you alter the pixels that much.
Finally, I do think the mere existence of contradictions should be troubling in a book that is supposedly divinely inspired. Obviously a single contradiction, however minor, completely annihilates the idea of biblical literalism. But it should bring even more liberal conceptions of biblical inerrancy into question, too. I know there are many liberal Christians who believe that the Bible was written by humans, in pieces, over a long period of time, was shaped by the cultural contexts in which it was created, and so on. But they still believe that it is, in some meaningful sense, “the word of God,” or says something meaningful about God; otherwise they wouldn’t call themselves Christians, right? Maybe I’m just not understanding this idea correctly – I have to admit that I have always had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around it – but it seems to me that if God was involved in any way in the creation of the Bible, he could have done something to prevent it from being so error-ridden. I just really think you have to work a lot harder to defend your case that this book should be taken seriously when it is full of holes and patches like this. In any case, if the trees that are distracting me from the beautiful and divine forest are actually irreconcilable contradictions that call into question the God-inspired-ness of the whole book, then the trees become extremely important since they show that there actually is no forest to bother with, so we can all stop trying to squint and find it.
Anyway. Jesus asks the demon in the possessed guy what its name is, and the guy answers, “Legion is my name, because we are many” (9). That’s kind of cool – I didn’t know that came from the Bible. Anyway, you know what happens next; the demons leave the man only to possess the pigs, who run into the lake and drown. People hear about this and are impressed, but some ask Jesus to leave their neighborhood. Not sure why – maybe because they know the Pharisees and ruling classes and so on won’t like what he’s up to? The de-possessed man asks to join Jesus as a disciple, but Jesus tells him to go home and spread the word about how God cured him and showed mercy on him.
Jesus crosses the river again and gets ready to heal some more people. Jairus, a big shot at the local synagogue, begs Jesus to heal his daughter. Jesus agrees, but while he’s en route to the house, a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years (which startled me all over again even though I already read about it in Matthew) comes up to him and heals herself by touching his clothes. Which reminds me: this story inspired a great song by Sam Cooke, which is redundant, because all songs by Sam Cooke are great. Legend has it that Sam and his producer were on their way to a recording session when the producer realized Sam wasn’t exactly prepared with something to record. Before he could freak out, Sam was like, “Chill out. Just hand me the Bible.” His producer immediately produced a Bible, because this was the fifties and I guess everybody just had a Bible with them all the time in case Communists attacked or something. Sam flipped through, found this story, and made up a kick-ass song on the spot, because he’s Sam Cooke and that’s how he rolls. Or rolled, rather, until some crazy bitch shot him. That whole debacle still upsets me, so I’m going to calm down with a nice uplifting gospel song.
Anyway Jesus tells the bleedy woman that her faith has healed her yay.
Meanwhile, some messengers from Jairus’s house find him and tell him it’s too late: his daughter has already died. They suggest he let Jesus go since there’s nothing he can do anymore, but Jesus is like “No it’s cool, I got this.” He goes to the house with just three of his disciples and finds it full of crying people. He says the girl is just sleeping, not dead, and the people switch from crying to laughing at him. He kicks them all out of the house, then takes the girl’s hand and whispers some magic spell that means “Young woman, get up,” in some language or other (41). And hey presto, she’s alive and walking around again! Jesus tells the disciples and the girl’s parents not to tell anybody about what happened.
Of course, this is a little different from how Matthew told us it all went down. For example, in Matthew’s account, the girl has already died when her father comes to seek Jesus’s help, so he asks him to resurrect her. And in that version, Jesus doesn’t demand silence about the resurrection; in fact, “News about this spread throughout that whole region” (Matthew 9:26). Ah, well. Forest for the trees, right? *twitch*
See above rant.