Is the Bible a Failure?

29 Nov

Okay, another excerpt from Timothy Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible. I have suspected for some time that we have followed the evolutionist, the modern scientific theorist, the Enlightenment thinker up the wrong tree with the Bible, as it were; that we’ve been trying to make the Bible do something it was never intended to do. I’ve spent years feeling it was my duty to harmonize and smooth out all the evident seams and tensions within the Book (better, the Books) or even to deny that those tensions are there. In the past few years, I’ve been doing that less (I hope) and have more often sat back with various questers and inquisitors and said, “Yeah, look at those rival messages, those conflicting details…isn’t it marvelous?” Now for Mr. Beal:

In many ways, those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are no different from irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general. Many from both camps seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible is full of inconsistencies and contradictions, as I have just done, is enough to discredit any religious tradition that embraces it as Scripture. Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what’s at stake, namely its credibility as God’s infallible book. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.

But you can’t fail at something you’re not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That’s a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. As we have seen, biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.

We don’t know, and will never know, many details about the history of the development of biblical literature. No doubt there have been countless hands, scribal and editorial, involved in writing, editing, copying, and circulating the various versions of various texts that eventually were brought together into a canonical collection. Nor do we know very much for certain about the ancient life situations – ritual practices, oral traditions, legal systems – in which those texts had their beginnings. Nor do we know everything about the complex process by which the canons of Jewish and Christian Scriptures took form. What we do know for certain is that the literature now in our Bibles was thousands of years in the making.

Given how many hands have been involved in so many contexts over such a long time in the history of this literature, can we honestly imagine that no one noticed such glaring discrepancies? Can we believe, for example, that the seam between the first and second creation stories in Genesis, as well as the many other seams found throughout the Torah, were not obvious? That if agreement and univocality were the goal, such discrepancies would not have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? That creation stories would have been made to conform or be removed? That Job would’ve been allowed to stand against Moses? That Gospel mix-ups concerning who saw what after Jesus’ resurrection would have been left to stand? That Judas would have died twice, once by suicide and once by divine disgorge? And so on? Could all those many, many people involved in the development of biblical literature and the canon of Scriptures have been so blind, so stupid? It’s modern arrogance to imagine so.

The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument – even and especially, as we have seen, when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all the answers. The Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to univocality.

Yep, there’s just a wee bit to chew on…


Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Bible Questions, Doctrine & Heresies


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4 responses to “Is the Bible a Failure?

  1. Steve Peisner

    November 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I would imagine that his theory is correct about many people through history having acute awareness of the “many voices” within the text of scripture. At the same time, history tells a story of many people working very hard to defend or present the many voices as “one voice,” which usually translates as “my voice, or our voice.” Evangelicalism has been particularly efficient at this strategy, which, by the way, is always over and against the “many voices.” Why is it necessary to always try to collapse the many voices into one voice (question mark). Good question with many answers, no doubt.

  2. wordhaver

    December 1, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Thank you Steve! Collapsing polyvocality into the currently imagined and mandated univocality does seem to be a consistent trap! How much richer the journey through the word, the books, hearing the and appreciating the different voices…funny how spiritual sanity means that we do in fact hear voices :0)

  3. Jacob

    February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    This book is pure relativism and quite poisonous. I am stunned at your candid promotion of this material Mike. You should know better.
    The two sides of the debate are not “kindred spirits”. They are opposed to eachother and of entirely two different camps–that of the Biblicist and that of the Assyrian.

    There are zero contradictions in Scripture. If any contradictions exist within the Bible, it is not the Word of God. Diving deep and discovering the solutions to paradoxes is one of the beautiful gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    I’m very curious, what in the world makes you think that this man has anything valuable for the Christian community?

  4. wordhaver

    February 29, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing your faith, Jacob. Long and the short of it is that I’ll recommend for folks to “take and read” a book if it’s one that causes me to think and thus drives me deeper into truth and the Word and Jesus. This book did that for me. Synapses were firing. Mental and literal pages were turning all over the place for me. That’s a good read in my book, whether I agree with the author’s conclusions or not is really beside the point. Which brings it all down to why we read. Some read to confirm and bolster their existing beliefs and opinions or to tear down those of others regarded as wrong, in error, etc. Others read to stimulate thought and contemplation and to potentially open up deeper levels of understanding – or new horizons of insight altogether. At the same time, in making recommendations, I recognize that one’s man’s treasure is another’s garbage, and vice versa – which is why I regularly tell folks buying books here caveat lector (“let the reader beware”). Blessings to you in your journey.


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