I – II – III – IV – V – VI – VII – VIII – IX – X – XI – XII – XIII – XIV – XV – XVI – XVII – XVIII – XIX – XX – XXI – XXII – XXIII – XXIV – XXV – XXVI – XXVII – XXVIII – XXIX – XXX – XXXI – XXXII – XXXIII – XXXIV – XXXV – XXXVI – XXXVII – XXXVIII – XXXIX – XL – XLI – XLII – XLIII – XLIV – XLV – XLVI
Of course, maybe you are one of those believers who takes the Bible literally and considers it to be 100% inerrant. In that case, let me just take a few sections here to explain why I could never quite fully commit to that interpretation myself. A lot of the reasons I’ll be giving here, of course, are things that I wasn’t actually cognizant of while I was still religious, except in a sort of distant, peripheral way; for instance, I didn’t know all the different ways that the Bible contradicted science until after I’d already been a nonbeliever for a while. When I was a Christian, I just had a kind of vague, low-level awareness that there were in fact some discrepancies there (though they didn’t feel important enough to detract from Christianity’s core message). I simply didn’t think enough of them at the time to pay them much mind. But needless to say, those seemingly small details had a way of adding up and, in the end, making a big difference – so hopefully, by detailing some of these issues explicitly here, I’ll be able to give some insight into where the seeds of my eventual deconversion ultimately came from.
I should probably give a disclaimer right up front – if you’re religious, a lot of the things I’m going to be saying here will strongly conflict with some of your most cherished beliefs. I’m going to try not to be needlessly inflammatory, but in some cases it’ll probably just be unavoidable that some of the things I say will really rub you the wrong way. In particular, some of the quotations and video clips I’ll be referencing – and there are a lot of them – go pretty heavy on the anti-religious snark. But for better or worse, the points they make are part of what convinced me to change my beliefs, so I feel like it would be an incomplete account if I didn’t include them. Just know that my goal here isn’t to upset or offend; in fact, I’m not even necessarily trying to deconvert you (at least, that’s not the main purpose of this post). My main goal here is just to explain where I’m coming from – what I believe now, and how I got there – in as clear a manner as I can; and hopefully, that might prove useful to any believer who struggles to understand how anyone in their right mind could lack a belief in God, and who genuinely wants to understand what possible reasoning there even could be for such a stance. I talked in my last post about how I think discussions like this are better served by trying to build bridges of understanding than by trying to score debate points and beat the other side – and in the case of religion specifically, I feel like both sides tend to get a lot more out of trying to understand where their views differ (and why) than they get out of straw-manning each other’s positions and trying to destroy each other (e.g. nonbelievers accusing believers of being empty-headed sheep who believe whatever they’re told, believers accusing nonbelievers of knowing deep down that God is actually real but choosing to reject him anyway out of a selfish desire to live sinfully, etc.). Still though, even if you disagree with me on this approach and are a true diehard – even if your only goal in life is to convert every nonbeliever to Christianity – I daresay you can’t expect to have a solid enough theoretical footing to successfully dissect and refute opposing arguments unless you actually understand those arguments on their own terms – so if nothing else, hopefully this post will at least be able to serve as a partial collection of what the arguments actually are, and what the reasoning behind them is, that you can use as a handy reference.
So all right then – with all the disclaimers out of the way, let’s get down to it.
The first reason why I don’t think the Bible can be considered infallible is because, to put it bluntly, it’s hard to see how such a thing even could be possible, just in basic functional terms. The Bible contains so many contradictions that to say that all of its assertions must be true just seems logically incoherent, like saying that a triangle can have four corners or something. I mean, if you were to read a biography of George Washington that claimed in the first chapter that he was born in in 1732 to parents named Mary and Augustine, but then said in the second chapter that he was born in 1736 to parents named Abigail and William, you might not necessarily know which of these accounts (if either) was the correct one – but what you would know is that the biography itself must be flawed, because it wouldn’t be possible for both accounts to be true at once. And the biography’s imperfection would become even more glaring if it kept making hundreds more such contradictory statements throughout its pages.
Unfortunately for biblical literalists, though, this is exactly what you see with the Bible. It’s chock-full of these kinds of contradictions – and although it’s possible in some cases to squint your eyes and stretch the limits of your credulity to imagine ways that these contradictions might be resolved, in many cases they’re just irreconcilable.
Some of the contradictions, of course, are fairly mundane details that might be easy to miss at first. How old was King Jehoiachin when he began his reign? (According to 2 Chronicles 36:9, he was eight; but according to 2 Kings 24:8, he was eighteen.) Who was Samuel’s firstborn son? (According to 1 Samuel 8:1-2, it was Joel; but according to 1 Chronicles 6:28, it was Vashni.) Where did Josiah die? (According to 2 Kings 23:29-30, he died at Megiddo; but according to 2 Chronicles 35:23-24, he died in Jerusalem.) Was Isaac Abraham’s only son when he was nearly sacrificed? (According to Genesis 22:2 and Hebrews 11:17, he was; but according to Genesis 16:15-16 and Galatians 4:22, Abraham already had another son.) How many members of each Jewish family returned to Judah from their captivity in Babylon? (Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 each give detailed lists of how many people there were from each family, but the two accounts contradict each other in over a dozen places.)
Like I said, pretty mundane. But there are other contradictions that are harder to overlook. The creation story, for instance, is the most prominent event in all of Christianity – but the Book of Genesis gives two contradictory descriptions of how it supposedly happened. In Chapter 1, it describes God creating both Adam and Eve at the same time, on the sixth day of creation, after creating all the other animals. In Chapter 2, though, God creates Adam first, then creates the animals so that Adam won’t be alone, then gives Adam the task of going through the entire animal kingdom and naming each creature individually (which realistically would have taken months or years); and it’s only after Adam has completed this project and failed to find a suitable companion that God finally decides to put him to sleep and create Eve out of his rib. These aren’t two complementary accounts of the same sequence of events; they’re two different stories.
Or take the story of Noah’s ark. We all know the classic image of Noah leading all the different species of animals onto his boat, two by two; and sure enough, that’s how events are described in Genesis 6:19, 7:8-9, and 7:14-15 – every species boards the ark in twos (one male and one female). But according to Genesis 7:2-3, there are actually seven of each animal – or fourteen, depending on your translation – loaded onto the ark (except for the unclean ones like pigs and dogs, which are only loaded in twos). This one really threw me for a loop when I first learned of it – who had ever heard of Noah bringing animals onto the ark in sevens? But sure enough, it’s right there in the book; I’d just somehow managed to never see it.
I could keep going here; these kinds of contradictions come up again and again – not just here and there, but hundreds of times – throughout the Bible. I’m only giving a few Old Testament examples right now to demonstrate the general point, but they become even more egregious once you get to the New Testament (as we’ll get into later). The clip below from NonStampCollector does a good job of putting into perspective just how extreme the problem is:
Again, it’s true that some of these contradictions only concern relatively minor details and probably don’t have much bearing on the big-picture questions of existence. (Who really cares how old Jehoiachin was when he became king?) But regardless of how minor these points may be for the broader overarching message of Christianity, they are most definitely not minor for the specific claim that the Bible is inerrant – because if you really want to make that claim, then even a single tiny fault is enough to disconfirm it. If a book contains flaws, then by definition, it’s imperfect.
There are ways of trying to rationalize the contradictions away, of course – and if you think your religion requires you to believe that the Bible is perfect, then it’s only natural that you’ll want to try – but the mental gymnastics you have to put yourself through to come up with some convoluted explanation for every single disparity you encounter (as I tried to do myself for years) just start to feel forced and ridiculous after a while. Bart Ehrman recounts his own experience with this kind of cognitive dissonance during his time in seminary:
A turning point came in my second semester, in a course I was taking with a much revered and pious professor named Cullen Story. The course was on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, at the time (and still) my favorite Gospel. For this course we needed to be able to read the Gospel of Mark completely in Greek (I memorized the entire Greek vocabulary of the Gospel the week before the semester began); we were to keep an exegetical notebook on our reflections on the interpretation of key passages; we discussed problems in the interpretation of the text; and we had to write a final term paper on an interpretive crux of our own choosing. I chose a passage in Mark 2, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples had been walking through a grain field, eating the grain on the Sabbath. Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that “Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath” and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple “when Abiathar was the high priest” and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat. One of the well-known problems of the passage is that when one looks at the Old Testament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Sam. 21:1-6), it turns out that David did this not when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact, when Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was. In other words, this is one of those passages that have been pointed to in order to show that the Bible is not inerrant at all but contains mistakes.
In my paper for Professor Story, I developed a long and complicated argument to the effect that even though Mark indicates this happened “when Abiathar was the high priest,” it doesn’t really mean that Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in the part of the scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters. My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involved and was a bit convoluted. I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me. He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” I started thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch. I finally concluded, “Hmm… maybe Mark did make a mistake.”
Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well. Maybe, when Jesus says later in Mark 4 that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on the earth,” maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t. And maybe these “mistakes” apply to bigger issues. Maybe when Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12; 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14) – maybe that is a genuine difference. Or when Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’s birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem (and performed the rites of purification; Luke 2:39), whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22) – maybe that is a difference. Or when Paul says that after he converted on the way to Damascus he did not go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before him (Gal. 1:16-17), whereas the book of Acts says that that was the first thing he did after leaving Damascus (Acts 9:26) – maybe that is a difference.
Nate Gabriel recalls having a similar experience himself:
I used to be a fundamentalist, and it was [Jonah’s] fish that first convinced me there could be mistakes in the Bible. Not because the whale isn’t really a fish, but because the Bible, going back to the earliest documents we have, is inconsistent about its gender. It uses the word three times: The fish (“dag,” masculine) swallowed Jonah, Jonah was inside the fish (“dag’ah,” feminine), and then Jonah was vomited up by the fish (masculine again).
Wikipedia told me that the Orthodox Jewish explanation is that there were multiple fish and Jonah got transferred into a larger and more comfortable one when he gained more faith. I concluded that hey, there can be typos in the Bible after all.
At the end of the day, it seems like the best way to resolve the issue of biblical contradictions is simply to acknowledge the possibility that its authors may in fact have made a few mistakes at various points. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t divinely inspired – even an imperfect book might have been inspired by God – all it means is that the text of the Bible was transcribed by fallible humans, not directly written firsthand by God himself. And even the Bible itself will openly concede that much; aside from the Ten Commandments, which supposedly were chiseled directly into the stone tablets by the hand of God himself (Exodus 31:18, 32:16; Deuteronomy 9:10), the Bible is quite clear that, for instance, the Pauline epistles (Galatians, Romans, Ephesians, etc.) were written by Paul, the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel were written by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and so forth. It wasn’t God who wrote the Bible – it was men. And as verses like Ecclesiastes 7:20 and Romans 3:10 teach, no man is perfect (although, awkwardly enough, the Bible even manages to contradict itself on that particular point – as in verses like Genesis 6:9 and Job 1:1, 1:8, and 2:3, which describe men like Noah and Job (among others) as perfect and blameless).
The fact is, the text that we know today as the Bible wasn’t just handed down from the heavens, in its current form, fully complete. It emerged as the result of a very long and messy process that spanned centuries and involved thousands of people – with lots of edits, revisions, additions, subtractions, translations, and mistranslations along the way.
This whole process is actually pretty fascinating when you get into the historical details. Traditionally, Christianity teaches that the first few books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – were written by a single author, namely Moses. But the historical and textual record shows that these books weren’t actually written by a single author at all, but were combined from multiple sources over the years. Biblical scholars (a sizable portion of whom are Christians themselves) have a couple different models for breaking down the exact composition (one of which, the Documentary Hypothesis, is illustrated in simplified form by Evid3nc3 below (from 5:27-6:57)); what they all universally affirm is that the single-author model is untenable.
This would make sense, of course, considering that Deuteronomy describes Moses’s death and burial, along with other events that happened afterward; so clearly (for this and other reasons) Moses couldn’t have written the whole thing himself. (Although if he did, it would add a pretty funny dimension to verses like Numbers 12:3: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.”)
But the existence of multiple authors also makes sense of a lot of other things, including all those contradictions. It explains, for instance, why the creation story takes the odd form that it does, with two contradictory descriptions of what happened – because it actually was originally two different accounts, and it was only later that they were (somewhat clumsily) combined into the same narrative. As mentioned in the clip above, scholars were able to disentangle these two accounts by noticing certain telltale signs in the text, like the fact that one account always refers to God as “Yahweh” and uses one particular writing style, while the other always refers to God as “Elohim” and uses a noticeably different style. And by tracing these regularities throughout the other books of the Old Testament, these scholars were able to uncover explanations for the other contradictions as well – like the “twos” versus “sevens” contradiction in the Noah story, or the fact that Genesis 6-7 describes Noah assembling the animals and boarding the ark with his family a good three or four times, one right after another, in a manner that would otherwise just seem weirdly redundant.
It’s the same story with all those other incongruities throughout the Old Testament; the reason why so many different parts of the Bible disagree on so many details is because originally, they weren’t part of the same volume at all, so the issue of mutual consistency didn’t really come into play as much. Different sections of what would eventually become the Jewish Torah (AKA the Old Testament) started off as their own independent works, existing separately from one another and floating around the Middle East along with countless other books of supposedly divine scripture. It took centuries of mixing and matching before the Torah started to take shape in its modern form; and even once it did, human editors continued to alter it – adding new passages, removing others, and making various changes as they saw fit.
As for the New Testament books, obviously they were added to the canon much later – but again, they weren’t just handed down from the heavens one day in a single tidy volume. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament was assembled from multiple different sources and extensively revised over the course of several centuries. When the Christian religion first started out, the different churches scattered across the Middle East all had different books of scripture that they considered sacred – some of which were shared by other churches, others of which weren’t. There wasn’t an official biblical canon; every church just used whichever writings about Jesus they liked best at the time. Needless to say, having such a hodgepodge of competing texts tended to muddle things up quite a bit in terms of Christian doctrine – and at times these differences were so pronounced that they caused real tensions to flare up between the various Christian factions. There were sects like the Ebionites and the Adoptionists, for instance, who believed that Jesus was 100% human and only became the Messiah after God adopted him into that role (i.e. he was not equal to God, but was simply God’s instrument) – while other sects, like the Docetics and the Basilideans, believed that Jesus was 100% divine all along and that his physical body was only an illusion (so he was never really crucified, but only appeared to be). There was a sect called Marcionism that rejected the Old Testament scriptures altogether and insisted that Jesus’s mission was to overthrow the angry and vindictive Old Testament God (who was actually a lesser demigod) and reveal the higher God of love and forgiveness instead – the true God. (In fact, Marcion himself was the first person ever to compile a canon of Christian scriptures – a “New Testament” that was separate from the “Old Testament” – for precisely this reason.) There was even a sect called the Carpocratians who (allegedly) believed in reincarnation and taught that in order to finish one’s cycle of reincarnation and ascend to Heaven, one first had to experience everything in life – including committing every possible sin. (You can imagine the kind of debauchery that this would have led to.)
Suffice it to say, for the first few centuries of Christianity’s history, the actual doctrine of the religion was something of a free-for-all. It was only when things finally reached a boiling point in AD 325 that a bunch of the religion’s most prominent leaders decided to convene at Nicaea and hold a series of votes to decide on what the answers to the key theological questions of Christianity (like whether Jesus was human or divine) should actually be. To believers today, of course, it might seem galling to even imagine that the most holy and sacred of truths might be decided by something as prosaic as a show of hands by some random committee hundreds of years after Jesus’s death – but it was only after this meeting (along with a series of other such meetings spanning the next few centuries) that something resembling a sort of official Christian consensus began to emerge. And it was also during this period that the leading figures within the Church finally came to something of a consensus regarding which specific combination of books should serve as the official sacred canon – i.e. the Bible.
This was not a straightforward process, to say the least; there was a lot of politics involved, and there was never really a point where the matter was settled in anywhere near as definitive a manner as you might imagine. Several of the books that we see in our Bibles today, for instance – Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, etc. – are completely absent from the earliest copies of the Bible. Books like Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and (especially) Revelation were considered particularly controversial additions that took centuries to finally gain mainstream acceptance into the canon. Some of the most important passages in the Bible – like the story in John 8 where Jesus spares the adulteress with the admonition “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” or the line in Luke 23 where he’s dying on the cross and says “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” or even the crucial section at the end of Mark where the resurrected Jesus appears to his followers and then ascends into Heaven – weren’t part of the original text of those books at all, and were only added in by Christians centuries later. Other passages were altered or added to try and cover up obvious contradictions and mistakes (like 2 Samuel 21:19, which says that it was Elhanan, not David, who killed Goliath – and which KJV translators later altered to say that Elhanan killed “the brother of Goliath,” not Goliath himself). And not only that, but there were still other books that originally were included in the earliest versions of the Bible but were later removed – such as the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 and 2 Clement, and The Shepherd of Hermas. As Sam Harris notes, “for centuries [these books were] considered part of the canon, and then [were] later jettisoned as false gospel. Generations of Christians lived and died being guided by gospel that is now deemed both incomplete and mistaken.” The Bible that we know today actually still includes references to a number of these books throughout its pages, often citing them as sacred sources of prophecy and miracle accounts. Needless to say, though, this raises some serious problems for the idea that the modern Bible is God’s perfect word; why would a truly holy book cite a bunch of other books as containing holy knowledge if they were actually false gospel?
But that’s the thing – there are so many inconsistencies in the Bible, and so many thousands of discrepancies between all the different versions of the Bible that have existed throughout history, that even just asking whether the Bible is infallible is a premise that refutes itself. As Ehrman puts it: “When people ask me if the Bible is the word of God, I answer ‘which Bible?’”
To this day, there are multiple competing versions of the Bible, and each has its own different combination of books that it considers canonical. (This is another one of those facts that I somehow managed to go my entire life as a Christian without knowing, but which totally blew my mind when I found out about it years later.) The Catholic Bible, for instance, includes all the books featured in the Protestant Bible, plus several additional ones: 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (AKA Ecclesiasticus), some additional passages in Esther, and some additional passages in Daniel (namely Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Holy Children, and Bel and the Dragon (a story in which, yes, Daniel slays a real-life dragon)). Bibles used by the Orthodox Church – the second-largest Christian denomination after Catholicism – also include all these books (known collectively as the Apocrypha), plus 1st and 2nd Esdras, The Prayer of Manasseh, 3rd Maccabees, and Psalm 151. And in fact, even the original King James Version of the Bible, which most Protestants regard as the definitive version of God’s word, includes these books; it was only around the mid-1800s that Bible publishers quietly started dropping them from most Protestant editions.
(You might also notice individual verses like John 5:4, Acts 8:37, and 1 John 5:7 missing from your Bible depending on which translation you’re using; that’s because those verses were later interpolations, not part of the original text, so some biblical editors opted to remove them while others left them in.)
So to sum up, then, although it surely would have made things much easier for everyone if God had simply dropped the Bible from the sky in a perfectly finished, self-contained form (as he supposedly did with the Ten Commandments), this isn’t even close to what actually happened. There was never a single volume that we could point to and say, “There, that’s the original Bible.” What actually existed were a bunch of manuscripts, written by a wide range of different authors, that sometimes contradicted each other and sometimes made mistakes. None of those original manuscripts survived to the present day, so we don’t have them on hand to use as a reference. All we have are copies of copies of translations of copies of translations of copies, that were passed along from person to person over the course of centuries – accumulating mistranslations, editorial additions, redactions, and other alterations and mistakes along the way, like a game of telephone.
Even professional Christian apologists, if backed into a corner, will acknowledge that all this human error is to blame for many of the Bible’s faults. When faced with the “how old was Jehoiachin when he became king” contradiction, for instance, the prominent apologist Matt Slick concedes, “The discrepancy in ages is probably due to a copyist error.” He quickly follows it up, of course, with “Does this mean the Bible is not trustworthy? Not at all. Inspiration is ascribed to the original writings and not to the copies.” But the problem, like I said, is that we don’t have any of the original writings. So even if you assert that those lost scriptures – the original ones – were inerrant, that doesn’t do you much good if you also want to claim that the Bible today should be followed because it’s inerrant – because the only Bibles people are following today, i.e. the only Bibles that still exist, are the faulty copies. Ehrman asks the crucial question: “If God inspired the Bible without error, why hadn’t he preserved the Bible without error? I couldn’t think of a good answer then, and I still can’t think of a good answer now.”
No matter how you slice it, there’s just no way around the fact that the book we know today as the Bible is an imperfect one. The humans who wrote, compiled, and edited it may have been doing the best they could with the information they had at the time – or they may have been hopelessly biased – but either way, at the end of the day, they were only human. They still made mistakes; they still made faulty assumptions; and they still leapt to false conclusions at times. This is why the Bible contains the contradictions that it does – and it’s also why it contains so many other mistakes as well.