Is the Bible Coherent, and is it the Word of God? — part 1

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This is part of an ongoing conversation between David Knott and myself about Christianity. In previous articles I’ve discussed the resurrection of Jesus, and whether this should be understood literally or allegorically. I’m now going to address some other statements of his. He says that “there is a coherence to the Bible that is astonishing”. This statement follows his reading and study of it for over 40 years, so that “it rings true”. He therefore is “satisfied that there is a rational and reasonable basis for trusting in the authenticity of the Bible”, and trusts it to be the word of God.

My immediate response to this is that, despite his extensive reading over a long period, he must have failed to notice some important passages which contain serious contradictions. I’ll focus on just two of those in separate articles, firstly because they have important consequences for Christian theology, and secondly because they are not usually given the attention by scholars and Christians that I think they deserve. I’ve written about both of them previously in more detail, so here I’ll give just a summary, and refer readers to these earlier articles, should they wish to delve more deeply into this material.

The first topic is Saul’s conversion which, according to the Acts of the Apostles, took place on the road to Damascus, where he had a vision of the risen Jesus. This is described in chapter 9, where the story is told in the third person. In two other places (chapter 22. 3–16 and 26. 9–18), Paul — the name by which he is later known — recounts the same story in the first person although, let us remember, he was not himself the author of Acts.

For my purposes here the most relevant details are that, following this vision, ‘the Lord’ instructs a disciple Ananias to go to Saul to heal his blindness. He is then “filled with the Holy Spirit”, and baptised. “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’. After managing to escape from Damascus despite a plot to kill him, he went to Jerusalem and “attempted to join the disciples”. They did not believe that he had become a disciple. “But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles… (where he explained what had happened)”. Paul then preached in Jerusalem.

However, according to Paul himself: “When God… was pleased to reveal his Son to me… I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus”¹. He says that it was not until three years later that he went to Jerusalem, intending to meet Cephas (assumed to mean Peter). He further says: “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie”, which is the equivalent of swearing an oath on the Bible before giving evidence in court. Paul is insisting absolutely on the truth of what he is saying.

I trust that the complete incompatibility between the two accounts is obvious, but these are the main points: if Paul, as he claims, really did not confer with any human being, and went immediately to Arabia, then there was no Ananias, no baptism, no preaching in Damascus, and no imminent return to Jerusalem to meet the other apostles. That’s quite a list if the Bible is supposed to be coherent and a reliable account.

Nowhere in his epistles does Paul mention the road-to-Damascus incident (he merely says that he once persecuted the Jerusalem Church, but was converted following a vision), and Acts nowhere mentions Paul’s stay in Arabia. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the author of Acts (frequently assumed to be Luke) was ignoring this visit, in other words, trying to cover up and rewrite the true history. Can the Bible be the word of God therefore?

Why does Paul need to swear an oath with such force? Presumably because other people are telling false versions of his story which he wants to denounce. His epistles are considered by scholars to be the earliest written documents of the New Testament, therefore precede Acts by many years. We cannot therefore say with certainty that the story of the road-to-Damascus incident, and what followed, was what Paul had in mind when he swore his oath although, given the several discrepancies, it seems a strong candidate. However, in retrospect we can say with certainty that, if Paul were made aware of the account in Acts, based upon his oath, he would completely reject it. How therefore can the Bible be called coherent, when it contains such a blatant contradiction. Is Acts the word of God, or is it Paul’s letter to the Galatians? It cannot be both.

This passage leads to some exceedingly interesting, difficult and unsettling questions for Christians:

  • Why did Paul go to Arabia?
  • Where exactly did he go? And what happened there?
  • Who told him to go there? How did he know that’s where he had to go?

Paul is swearing that his account, which contradicts the three separate but related accounts in Acts, is the truth. How do Christians react when confronted with such a massive contradiction as this? They either ignore the problem and sweep it under the carpet, or acknowledge it but try to minimise its importance, or come up with some strange suggestions for the purpose of his visit.

I’ve noted and discussed several examples of all these in my longer article, but here I’ll focus on just one. Both David Knott and Gerald R. Baron have recommended to me the scholar N. T. Wright, as someone who has thought deeply about Christianity, is a firm believer, therefore someone who might persuade me to change my views. He has written a lengthy article on the subject². He accepts that Paul did indeed go to Arabia, and attempts hypotheses to explain this from a conventional, safe Christian perspective. More relevant to my argument here, on four separate occasions he describes the Damascus road incident as a real event, completely ignoring the fact that Paul swears that the account in Acts is false. Of the four examples, the most telling is when he says that in the Galatians passage: “he describes the events leading up to and following from his dramatic experience on the road to Damascus”. How can I take someone as blinkered as this seriously?

The most obvious explanation for Paul’s journey is very simple; Arabia is where he needed to go to learn from scratch about his new-found religion. That is why he swears on oath that this is where he went. Putting his remark into context, he was trying to persuade the Galatians that he was the true apostle, and that they should not listen to “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1.7). His evidence that he was the true apostle was that, following his conversion he went immediately to Arabia, and did not seek to meet the Jerusalem apostles.

Such a suggestion makes Christians very uncomfortable. Wasn’t Jesus Jewish? Didn’t he live in Galilee, and didn’t the events of his life take place there? Why could Paul not find what he needed there or in Jerusalem, especially with the apostles who knew Jesus? Does this suggestion undermine everything we’ve ever been taught about Christianity? Perhaps that’s why all the Christian writers I’ve come across try to avoid the issue.

I’ll therefore repeat the question in my title: is the Bible coherent? The conflict between Paul and the author of Acts suggests not.

The above is a summary of, and contains extracts from this article.

One scholar who has taken Paul’s statement seriously is Kamal Salibi. It’s a long read, but I have discussed his ideas in this article, if anyone wants to delve more deeply.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

  1. Galatians 1. 15–17
  2. ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Paul_Arabia_Elijah.pdf

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com